The Mid-South?

The first time I heard reference to the term was early 2020, in regards to a gravel bike race somewhere in Oklahoma. My mission, which I chose to accept, was to chauffer a close friend, Veronika, and her two-wheeled companion, Nelson, to the town of Stillwater and act as support crew to them during a 100 mile race around the countryside. Why the hell not? I’d spent the past several years seemingly trapped in an incredibly unhealthy relationship, and was a few months into a whole new mindset transformation. This would be the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in bicycles (which I’d become fairly detached from the past couple years) again and help out a friend, while exploring an area of the country that I’d honestly never had much of a desire to explore.

So I requested two days off (my precious “discretionary” days from school, of which I only had 4 for the whole year and it had been ingrained in my teacher’s soul to hoard them like the last four drops of water on a desert trek) and looked forward to the long weekend, which then turned into an even longer stretch of time that would live in infamy.

welcome to kansas sign
Welcome to Kansas!

The End of the World

We could never have imagined as we left Colorado early on a Thursday morning that by the time we returned on Sunday afternoon, there would be mass panic over toilet paper acquisition. Veronika and I simply embraced the road trip lifestyle regardless of current events (that, truth be told, just seemed really removed and unreal): I had downloaded a smorgasbord of 90’s playlists, we had a variety of snacks, and innumerable topics of conversation. We stopped to document our travels at the Kansas and Oklahoma signs as we entered each state, and arrived in Stillwater in time to check-in to our questionable (but affordable) motel and take in a bit of the town before it was completely overrun by cyclists. As she went off on a ride, I found a lovely park in which to do a walking meditation and snap photos of the first daffodils I’d seen that spring.

daffodil in okalahoma
Springtime in Stillwater

The weekend proceeded in expected fashion, other than the odd racer’s meeting on Friday night – the cold rain cast a uncomfortable pall on the event, but the murmurs and speculation over the coronavirus in Oklahoma also had everyone on edge. Honestly, it really hadn’t entered my immediate attention much until then. I noticed that our school custodians had dropped off sanitizer spray and rubber gloves earlier that week, and we were told to start sanitizing the kids’ iPads more frequently, but other than that….the whole thing just felt so far removed.

But the race organizers seemed to be contemplating their options as the rest of us huddled under trees and umbrellas in downtown Stillwater waiting for an announcement about something. It outwardly appeared incredibly disorganized, and I don’t know if that was purely because of news coming from the governor’s office about canceling events, or if it was some legit lack of planning or surprise concern. Eventually (still in the cold rain) we heard a speech about the race’s name change – from the Land Run 100 to the Mid-South, and learned that the race would continue as planned the next morning. Yet at the same time, they were pushing folks out of the local bike store in what would soon be referred to as the “social distancing” that we all know too well today.

Dirty Bike-sicle

The race itself, on Saturday morning, was a wet, cold, mud-covered shit show. The atmosphere was still invigorating and encouraging, but the weather definitely brought down the high vibes from the day before. Perhaps it was more than just the weather that affected the mood, for those visitors listening to the news of the coronavirus (which was not me). I was busy trying to be the best support crew I could be. I learned a lot that day – it was a fun (albeit chilly) experience and I was happy to support my friend in her impressive endeavor at riding 100 miles through a variety of Oklahoma’s finest terrain. While waiting at the halfway point with my car full of snacks, drinks, assorted gear, and a mostly-warm cheese pizza I’d ordered for her, I was anxious that she hadn’t yet arrived with the first onslaught of athletes. I rang my cowbell with vigor, alternately chatting with other supporters and speculating about the outcome like I knew what I was talking about.

By the time I could see Veronika’s hunched, mud-covered figure emerge down the street, I readied the pizza for her to refuel. However, she and her bike had essentially morphed into one burnt-sienna colored bike-sicle that needed desperately to be thawed out before making rational decisions and taking in much-needed calories. We found a room nearby that had been designated a warming station for riders, got her a Snickers bar (to complement the pizza, of course) and she began to consider the agonizing choice of whether or not to continue in these conditions. No one expected sub-40 degree temps, and even an amazingly talented athlete who lives and trains at high altitudes for endurance races was going to face some serious physical obstacles in this mess (My couple of phone pics don’t begin to capture the environment – for a detailed gallery of images from the race, check out this link).

I cannot say exactly what went through my friend’s head at the 50-mile mark where we met, but I was worried for her health and just wanted her to feel supported regardless of her decision. In the end, she opted to stop there instead of completing the whole 100 miles. To me, an amateur cyclist who never would’ve had the confidence to even aspire to somethin like this, she was a hero on two wheels (who couldn’t feel her extremities) and had already accomplished so much just by showing up.

muddy bike racing
Post-ride, after a wardrobe change, on the way to the car wash

Adios, Oklahoma (for now…..)

At our motel that morning before the race, we’d randomly run into Mark Satkiewicz (former president of Smartwool, former GM of Toms shoes, and partner of SBT Gravel) at the lackluster breakfast bar in our motel. We’d questioned our choice of accommodations upon arrival, but somehow chatting casually with an individual who had accomplished so much in his career and life (and was there to race, just like Veronika) was a memorable moment that made that little highway motel just a little more cheerful. I’m not sure why that interaction stuck with me quite like it did, but when we heard that he had passed away from a cardiac event while on a ride a few months after our meeting, I was surprised and saddened. I think it was because, despite his impressive career, he took the time to chat over motel waffles with a couple of fellow Coloradans about bikes, life, and morning protein. Super cool guy, with no real connection to me, but the interaction did leave an impression and was a positive memory of that trip.

I was not a racer that weekend. But the crowd, the event, even the red mud of Oklahoma, was inspiring to be a part of. Fast forward a few months into the pandemic, and I would purchase my own gravel bike and spend much of 2020 on her. I know that the pandemic wasn’t actually Oklahoma’s fault….we still like to joke that it was all somehow connected (and blame the race for quarantine), since it was our last real outing before everything changed. Whatever that weekend was or wasn’t, it’s a memory that has burrowed itself deep into my brain as one of those, “I remember where I was when the Covid-19 pandemic started…” kind of things.

moots bike logo oklahoma
Me, with the kick-ass Moots logo, at District Bicycles in Stillwater, OK.

Now that the backstory has finally been documented, skip to June of 2021 when I moved from Colorado to Northwest Arkansas and can now say I actually live in the mid-south. I hadn’t been back to Oklahoma since March of 2020, until I purchased an investment property in Tulsa a few months ago. I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little superstitious on my first visit to Tulsa…after all, the last time I’d been in that state was the final weekend any of us experienced “normal.”

But…Why the Mid-South?

The most frequently asked question when I was preparing to leave Colorado last year was, “Why Arkansas?” Great question. Everyone loves Colorado! I grew up vacationing there, and really enjoyed the majority of my time there. I’ll miss a lot about it. But there were plenty of reasons why it was time to move on.

In my own roundabout way, explaining my take on the mid-south is actually my goal for this blog. For those of you who’ve made it this far, I promise there will be great things to come, such as mini-travel guides to the areas that are typically considered part of the mid-south. That alone is a bit of a debate, depending on which city you’re in when you start taking a poll, but this article has a great overview of the “new” definition of mid-south and what areas that potentially includes. Since I’ve lived here less than a year, I still have much to discover. I can’t wait to share the things I find.

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