The cleverly waffle-shaped signs of the southern states' most ubiquitous 24/7 breakfast joint began calling to us somewhere around Gulfport, Mississippi.
When you ride a bicycle all day, all thoughts, no matter how lofty or brilliant, eventually deteriorate into variations on the theme of food. Despite the many distractions the gulf coast has to offer, the Waffle Houses' promise of buttery biscuits and endless coffee dominated our mental scape just as it does the sand dune-built-cities.
The next morning, awakening in Alabama, Hannah and I succumbed. Instead of firing up the camp stove as we normally do to cook a sensible and nutritious breakfast, we hurriedly rolled up the sleeping bags and tent and backtracked to the nearest franchise restaurant bearing the charming black-on-yellow signage.
We parked Cynthia and Edith against the window, walked in, and answered the volley of usual questions from a nice middle aged couple sitting at one of a handful of tables in the diner-like establishment. After we sat down, they plunked on our table a little "Southern Hospitality" in the form of a $20 bill. Needing no more encouragement, we gorged on pecan waffles, bacon, sausage and biscuits, all of which arrived at our table suspiciously fast, slathered in margarine.
After we'd eaten our fill and then some, a rotund waitress, in the casual drawl we've come to adore, informed us that the bridge we were about to cross to Dauphin Island was "at least" 100 feet high, and that her car had a hard time making it over so she wasn't sure how we would fare on our bicycles. As politely as we could, we explained that our route had taken us over mountain passes nearly ten times that height.
Confidence can be a ruinous folly. A few miles down the road, before we even got to the bridge, I began feeling the effects of what had essentially been a fast-food breakfast. My stomach felt lined with a thick glue. I wasn't hungry, yet I didn't feel nourished or energized by what I had eaten. The opposite: My body seemed to be diverting resources to digest the insoluble mass I had swallowed, leaving my legs to fend for themselves.
Once we got out on the four-mile bridge that separates the mainland of Alabama from its only island, the sea air seemed to revive me a bit. We spent the rest of the morning exploring a bird sanctuary, strolling on the beach and learning of the glories of the methane gas industry thanks to some BP-funded signage along the water. We caught an early afternoon ferry to the mainland on the other end of the island and continued cycling toward Pensacola, Florida.
My hunger response still hadn't kicked back in and I figured Hannah felt the same. The air was warm and slightly breezy, traffic was reasonable (although the shoulder was lacking) and our farmer senses told us to make hay while the sun shines. We'd snacked on some bananas with almond butter and figured that would take us to wherever we would end up that evening.
About halfway to Pensacola, we stopped for a driver that had the right-of-way, then turned to follow him out to the main road. He stopped about ten feet short of the stop sign. I hit the brakes, but a moment later heard Hannah emit a distressed "Ohshitohshitohshit" as she fell, just like a tree in the woods, down to the pavement. She'd braked but forgotten to unclip her foot from the pedal. (Her first question when I reached her: Is the mandolin okay?)
We spent some time thoroughly denouncing the old man behind the wheel of the car, who was long gone, but it didn't take long to suss out the true cause of our problem: We'd skipped lunch. Despite the other hunger signals from by body - lack of focus, poor decision-making abilities, irritability - my stomach was still on strike. Hannah's all-encompassing drive to press forward until we reach our destination makes her inclined to avoid any stops at all, so it's always me who mildly suggests - and then outright demands - that we take a pause to eat. And I take my cues from the pangs in my belly. Basically, the questionable breakfast we'd consumed was literally our downfall.
It's not the first time we've realized how our daily bike rides have tuned us in to the direct relationship between the food we eat and the functioning of our bodies. The effects are always immediate - when I eat well, it's almost like I can feel the calories and nutrients hitting my stomach, being absorbed into my bloodstream, and being expended as energy. For us as much as the average person, the quality of the food we eat is as important as the quality of fuel you put into a car. If there's even a tiny amount of water in the gasoline, your engine will cough and sputter. When Hannah and I go a few days without eating fresh greens, we feel the lack of calcium and other minerals by the burning and cramping in our quadriceps. Without spending a lot of time worrying about specific vitamins or carbohydrate to protein ratios, we can tell when what we've eaten is what our body really needs.
Like a bicycle, we are one machine made up of many parts. If your chain breaks or your stomach is filled with glue, you're not going anywhere, and it doesn't matter if you have brand new Shimano shifters or bulging thighs. Hannah and I run best off of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, a variety of whole grains, eggs, nuts and lentils (and of course, lots of coffee and water). It's not that every bite of junk food sets us back. In fact, we're also surprised by how forgiving our bodies are. Maybe it's because we're young or because we're burning so many calories that we can sneak in a few "empty" ones and not get dinged for it. But every donut, cookie and pint of ice cream is a gamble. An hour later, we may feel fine, or we may be crawling along at seven miles an hour wondering why we can't seem to kick it into gear.
Trial-and-error experimentation has been our best teacher. On a hot, sweaty day, I may throw an electrolyte tablet in my water bottle (they fizz and add essential vitamins and minerals without sugar and food coloring). If someone hands off energy bars and chocolate, we won't say no, but we wouldn't say that this kind of trip is impossible without processed food. One thing that has saved us: The occasional patch of homegrown lettuce, or fruit tree along the roadside, or small town farmer's market where produce doesn't set you back the price of a new bicycle. On these occasions, we eat our fill, pack our panniers, and enjoy the easy, stomach-happy riding that follows.
It was a demoralizing fall but not the end of the world. Hannah picked herself up, climbed back on her saddle, and followed me to the grocery story, which was thankfully just a mile or so down the road. After two or three oranges, nuts, crackers and half a tub of cream cheese, she was back in business. The rest of the day, we braved college students on spring break at Perdido Beach west of Penscacola. The narrow sand dune was jammed with hotels, souvenir shops, condos, Waffle Houses, distracting women in bikinis and car after car after car. We dodged, got honked at, hollered back, sped up, hit the brakes, sweated and stressed. In the end, we made it to our destination okay, feasted on homemade chili and salad greens, and started all over the next morning.
Here's the lesson of the day: There's a difference between feeling full and feeling nourished. Every calorie is not equal. Most of all, when a yellow sign calls, do not answer - even if breakfast is free.