7/4/15: 87 miles, Mauckport, Ind., to Owensboro, Ky.
Barely slept with the bar bumping until 2 a.m. across the lawn. Though, waking up to the Ohio River, sweeping by just yards away with a swollen, quiet stillness, was worth it.
We got out of camp shortly after sunrise, not expecting to see anyone from the night before — hell, it’d only been a few hours since the last of ’em went home. There were a few runners, astonishingly, congregating at the far end of Mauckport. They must’ve known that half the town was sleeping off their raucous night, all but eliminating traffic from their route.
We crossed the Ohio back into Kentucky over the Welsh Bridge, which slanted uphill against our favor. It was two lanes without any sidewalk or bike lane. So John and I waited for a long gap in traffic and tried to blast across.
After spending the afternoon at Against the Grain, the brewpub attached to the Louisville Slugger Field that’s so well-stocked you can’t tell what came first—the baseball bats or the beer—my riding compadre John and I decided to get back on the road. Bloated with beer, bourbon and barbecue, we pedaled up and over the Big Four Railroad Bridge back into the state with America’s weirdest alcohol laws: Indiana.
This is the Ohio River of hawks.
John and I headed deeper into southern Indiana, our route yo-yoing along the Ohio River depending on what topography felt like doing. In Corydon, Indiana, which used to be the capital before Indy, we hit up Point Break Brewing for a pick me up IPA before pointing our bikes south and heading straight back to the Ohio.
The last 17 miles along Heidelberg Road were a couple notches above a gravel B road. Rolling Midwest farm roads, nothing special. The kind of landscapes that Normal Rockwell would’ve considered, but passed up for more idyllic, pastoral ones.
We stupidly tried to evade a few farm dogs that gave chase and handily caught us (beer+adrenaline = you’re not as fast as you think you are; plus, loaded touring bikes). As July 4th eve set in, we couldn’t tell if we were hearing fireworks or rifles popping from the trees, but either way, America. Fuck yeah. Brandenburg, Kentucky, was the destination. We weren’t sure where to stay. Not a new situation. Campsites we sure to be full on a holiday weekend, but somehow, some way, we always found a place. At the bottom of the last sharp descent into the Ohio River valley, the road hit a T in what appeared, uh, to be a village. No. More like a hamlet. A crumbled brick storefront greeted us. Next to that, an empty lot. And then a bar across the street from a municipal garage.
John and I stopped, sizing up the place, looking around for the best way to the bridge over to Kentucky. Looking over one shoulder and the next, I saw a sign in front of a mobile home: River Side Camp Sites. Behind it, an empty green lawn dotted with RV hookups stretched against the banks of the river. No one was there, even on this 4th of July weekend. But, hey, if the good old Midwestern lass perched atop the trailer out front was any indication, it was worth poking around. Like an Ohio River siren, luring in unsuspecting drunkcyclists and river rats. I see what you’re after. Alright, I’ll play into your hands, lady.
Before I made it to the trailer’s front door, Perry popped out. He was a thin slip of a guy in a faded hoodie and baseball cap who was already lighting a cigarette before the screen door closed behind him. “H’Sup, fellas?” with a twang I couldn’t quite nail down. Texas? Kentucky? Arkansas? We asked about camping. “What ya got?” Perry asked, looking for something behind us. “Camper?” We explained we had bikes. “Oh, you towin’?” Bicycles and tents. “Oh. Whoa-hmmm. I don’t think Miss Holly will go for tents, but I’mma ask’er,” he said.
John and I looked at each other, bewildered that there could possibly be an objection to something that wasn’t an RV, given how little space we needed at an RV park that appeared completely vacant, as Perry disappeared back inside. Perry returned, obsequiously holding open the door for an imposing, handsome woman whose blonde hair was piled into a beehive. She threw up her hands with a cigarette in one. “Tents?” Yep, we said, and invited them to look at our bikes. She asked where we’d go to the bathroom, on account of our not having RVs to piss and shit in, then carry it around in a tank. We said, uh, we’d wait for the bar to open? We offered her money to stay, and after seeing our bikes weren’t motorcycles, she objected to the thought. “You kidding me?” We were staying the night for free. “Y’all come on over to the bar when you’re set up. Have some food and some beers! DJ comes on at 10!” Cha.
At the other end of the park was an abandoned camper underneath a shelter, but that’s where the running water was. It was just a few steps from the Ohio River. We could make out the line where the grass gave up regrowing against repeated flooding. There was just mud. As John and I set up our tents, we watched a barge head downstream. The damn thing had to have been a half mile long, loaded with piles of black ore, coal, or something extracted from earth.
John and I got all reflective. That’s the thing about the Ohio River. It’s not a clear, mountain-fed stream to splash around in, or an aspirational place to own adjacent land. It’s a serious, not-fucking-around kind of river. Especially when we were there, it had just crested after swelling from weeks of heavy rain.
The current carries logs, old boats and other debris toward the Mississippi, and it doesn’t give a shit what’s in the way. If you had the misfortune of ending up in the river and hadn’t drowned yet, you could bank on a tree coming by and finishing the job. It’s a highway you don’t want to run across. Barges inched up and down every hour or so, lit up with beacon lights, commanding a mutual respect with the water. A working river. As we set up our tents, Perry made his way across the campsite toward us.
“Hey guys, we’re ‘bout to hook y’all up if you want.” He explained there was an apartment above the bar, which I interpreted as the drunk tank, where we could shower and crash for the night if we wanted to. John and I said we’d think about it, and thanked him. When Perry wandered off, John and I figured on a Friday night, we wouldn’t sleep above a bar. But a shower sounded nice. With camp set up, John and I walked over to the River Bottom Inn, the one establishment in town. At that point, we noticed we didn’t know what the town was called. A banner draped across the bar’s broadside read, “Mauckport, Indiana.”
Inside the smoke-filled, quiet bar, Perry sat on a barstool at the door. Waved us toward the bar, where we sat next to a couple and another guy who, if I guessed, was a truck driver.
#Kentucky A photo posted by Nick Wright (@nwrighteous) on
Suzanne the bartender came over. “You’re the bikers, yeah?” We nodded, and she handed us an envelope. It read, “For the Guys.” Inside were a few old bar flyers with kitschy caricatures of waitresses that Midwestern moms would find funny, one with a text bubble reading “Are y’all ready to order, or do you need a couple more minutes to stare at my big hair?”
In the margin, a handwritten note from Holly at the RV park: “Thank you and good luck – we never get any excitement, and I grew up in the big city. I also have a Facebook page.” Her card, paper-clipped to the flyer, said Holly Kingsley. Owner of the River Bottom Inn. And the RV park. And also a councilwoman, we learned.
Suzanne the bartender brought us rounds of High Lifes, a few shots of Wild Turkey, and fried cod sandwiches with fries. She was nostalgically pretty, like Sloane Peterson in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—and somehow “the lord blessed me” because she had five kids and still looked 35. When we told her about our trip, she said a couple guys from Virginia were canoeing down the Ohio River and had stopped in Mauckport, camped at the RV park like we were. No shit. I wondered if they were still alive.
Suzanne lived across the river in Brandenburg, as did many of the patrons. On the weekends, the River Bottom Inn got bumpin’ after midnight, when the bars in Kentucky closed. Then, a stream of coal rollin’ pickups headed over the bridge and partied two more hours. We weren’t sure if we’d make it that long, at our going rate of whiskey intake.
“Didja know that until about 10 years ago, it was illegal for a single woman to sit at a bar unaccompanied in Indiana?” Suzanne said, flipping a coupe coasters at us like a casino dealer.
After we ate, Perry showed me the apartment above the bar so I could shower. NASCAR posters adorned the walls—but, like, tastefully. They were centered and aligned with other posters, including a Jenny McCarthy one from the 90s. On one wall was a big navy Commonwealth of Kentucky flag, as though this pad was a secret hideout for the Kentuckians to infiltrate Indiana, should the need arise. At one time, it did.
Back down in the bar, billiards balls clashed and beer cans cracked open. I sat down in the middle of Suzanne explaining how Mauckport was the site of Indiana’s only Civil War battle, a Confederate artillery raid, and how the town got wiped out in the 30s from a flood. This is the town I imagine Neil Young is singing about in “Revolution Blues.” Mauckport’s story has been one of steady decline. At least until midnight when the population of 54 doubled every Friday and Saturday night.
John and I got a couple rounds of pool in, one of many we’d duke out at random bars across the country. We batted the 8 ball around until 12:30 when the Kentuckians showed up.
“Yippie kay-yay, Fahriday!” announced the first guy, followed by a coterie of holiday-drunk women, more guys. Because we’d been drinking since 1 p.m. beginning in Louisville, I’d about had it. We’d never go to bed, and I didn’t want drunkos knowing that I was camped out across the street. Being fucked with by drunk locals is not fun when you’re in a tent.
John and I went to settle up, expecting at least a $50 tab. Suzanne asked for $25, and said she took care of a couple ‘our rounds. It’s one thing to show gratitude for a free place to stay and shower. Tack on half a bar tab? For what, because we showed up?
They hoped we’d tell people down the road nice things about Mauckport.
Meanwhile, the barges grumbled by, plodding the churned, chocolate-milk Ohio River all night.
7/2/15: 70 miles, Sanders, Ky., to Charlestown, Ind.
Today was our second day in Kentucky. We had a humid night’s sleep at Eagle Valley campground, a black hole of cell service. John and I were particularly sore, as though we’d spent all of yesterday sprinting the final stretch of a crit. Then it dawned on us as soon as we made it out of camp: dogs.
The day before, we’d hammered down at least a dozen times after being chased by dogs. Trying to outrun a dog on a loaded touring bike is like running through a swamp from an angry hornet. Just aren’t going to get anywhere quickly. And it made us sore.
The morning brought persistent sheets of drizzle. But at least it began with a friendly stray, who decided to run about 4 miles alongside us before darting off to a farm.
In Carrolton, Ky., we stopped at a Subway for some breakfast sandwiches, WiFi, and a respite from the rain. The rain let up after lunchtime, when we hit the road and crossed the Ohio River, again, this time into Indiana at Madison.
There were some streets closed off behind which globs of people — groups that seemed too big for a speck of an Ohio River town — bumbled around in anticipation of some event. Outside of a grocery store, we talked to a motorcycle touring couple from West Palm Beach who told us that the qualifying races for the Indiana Governor’s Cup, an annual H1 hydroplane boat race on the river, were getting underway. Think NASCAR of hydroplane boats. Apparently they delayed the event a day because the Ohio had swelled to high levels due to recent rains.
Guys at the gate let John and I check out the staging area since they weren’t yet racing.
Working our way out of Madison, we took on a giant climb up to Hanover, past Hanover College. [I failed to mention that we were now on the Adventure Cycling’s Underground Railroad route to get us through the Ohio River Valley.]
The rest of our day, as soon as we left Kentucky, dazzled us with blue skies and corn fields. In Charleston, Ind., we stopped in a park where an evangelical Christian gathering was selling ice cream. You know we hit that up. John and I didn’t mind the guy with a guitar and PA in the gazebo encouraging the crowd to sing along about Jesus. But eventually we moseyed on to get beer.
Weird law we learned: Indiana doesn’t sell cold beer wherever cold milk is sold. So we had to find a liquor store.
We set up camp at Charlestown State Park, a clean and well-signed swath of woods along the Ohio River. Had the cleanest state park bathroom I’ve ever seen. John slept under a picnic table:
We were in striking distance of Louisville, where we’d end up the next day.
Guessing not. I hadn’t either until NewsHackAZ this past weekend. Assembled by University of Arizona’s journalism school and the Arizona Daily Star, the paper here in Tucson, NewsHackAZ brought in data reporters, digital editors, innovation directors and multimedia gurus to teach us editors, writers and journalizers of all stripes. As you can imagine, the attendees were mostly local — folks from media outlets in Tucson, Phoenix, Nogales. A dozen or so UArizona students (grad and undergrad) comprised a chunk of the 70-some attendees on Saturday, Day 1. And me.
For someone who’s spent the last five years in a print publishing environment, the idea of a “hack” as it applies to journalism has inspired within me a mix of curiosity and a craving for new chops. You could call it a digital journalism bootcamp. I’ve always figured that deciphering Excel spreadsheets, sniffing out trends or stories from raw numbers, and deploying charts or visuals — even the most rudimentary — are weapons every journalist should have a basic familiarity with.
Coding, which I’d consider the next technical notch above data reporting, has made me consider going after an entirely new career.
But the idea of a “hack” also heightens my awareness of the things I never learned, which makes skills outside the realm of ordinary writing, reporting and editing slightly intimidating. Luckily, I’m not alone. When I heard about NewsHackAZ back in December, I signed up immediately. Fifteen bucks? Done.
We learn: Saturday, Day 1
On Day 1, we convened in the study lab of UofA’s Science and Engineering library. The room was laden with flat-screen TVs that mirrored the instructors’ computers so we could click along on our laptops.
After an intro over donuts and coffee, we chose between beginner or advanced courses on the same topic: Data journalism 101 OR SQLite for data journalism; basic HTML+CSS coding or programming (i.e. setting up a server, using APIs and Python to scrape data); mapping data with Google Fusion or GIS; and creating charts/graphics with Google Sheets or developing infographic visuals with Tableau. I stuck around for all the beginner clinics except for the programming one, since I took a similar course at General Assembly in Chicago in December.
I’m surprised I walked away from each class with a renewed confidence in front of my laptop, and it was a prevailing mood I sensed from just about everyone. After the courses ended around 4:30 p.m., NewsHackAZ’s emcee Mike McKisson announced the teams of five into which we all divided. By noon Sunday, the teams had to come up with a story based on data and illustrate it with the tools we just learned to use. The meant we had half a day to pore over data in Excel, use it to tell a story with charts, maps and visuals, and code a website to display our work. Call it a deadline situation.
At 5:30, the NewsHackAZ crew had one last assignment: happy hour. As every journalist knows, meeting at the bar is de rigueur to stay current in the profession. We flocked to the second floor of Gentle Ben’s Brewing Co. for some free pitchers, doubtless intended to unlock our team’s idea for the hack project. After about two hours and several rounds, a few people trickled away to get started on their projects, but I sensed that the majority went on to another bar, or simply called it a night.
A little bleary-eyed from journalizing at Gentle Ben’s and another bar after, I rolled out of bed and biked the two miles to the library when it opened at 8. Only a few of the instructors were there and a couple fellow hackers, perhaps a bit overzealous to get started on the project as the coffee pots were still brewing, and not many people arrived until closer to 9. Ultimately, about half the attendees showed up for Day 2, but it sounded like many had only planned on coming for one day.
Our projects weren’t limited to the tools we learned on Day 1, but ideally the instructors wanted to see that we learned something. I was glad to work with Norma Gonzalez, a sports reporter from the Nogales News; Jenny Hijazi, a UofA grad student and reporter; and Samantha Munsey, a web producer from the Daily Star.
Using sets of data that NewsHackAZ made available to us on Github, my group (Team Super!) focused on juvenile asylum grant/deny rates between 2010–2014 for youths from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The data, originating from the Executive Office of Immigration Review, indicated that juveniles (accompanied or otherwise) must apply for asylum at one of eight offices in the U.S., depending on what office represents the state the seekers are in. We found, ultimately, based on the grant/deny rates for each office, that a seeker’s best bet for asylum is to apply in New York City. The worst chance of getting asylum is through the Chicago office.
We wanted to attribute this to the specific judge at each office: By finding out who they were, what their political leanings were, ethnicity and judging record, we could paint a picture of either a progressive, sympathetic judge, or one that wasn’t. We never got that far because our deadline loomed, and we had to get our website up. The story’s hook was timely, as The Washington Post reported just before Christmas 2015 that Immigration and Customs Enforcement planned raids to deport both adults and children who’ve entered the U.S. in recent years, many of them fleeing violence in their Central America homes.
Through some divide and conquer, we built a pretty cool site. Using TimelineJS, Norma and Samantha illustrated what the process of applying for asylum entails for a juvenile. Jenny sifted through our data and produced two nifty charts with Google Sheets, and we built a Google Map showing the EOIR asylum offices with accompany grant/deny rates. I did most of the under-the-hood coding using Sublime Text, a text editor that many developers use, but everyone on our team took a crack at solving some unruly line of HTML that gave me trouble.
Our website was one of about 10 final projects: http://newshackaz.org/super/
Here’s the rest: http://newshackaz.org/
Everyone worked through lunch until 1 p.m. when our deadline hit. Followed by the release of a collective sigh.
Long story short, Team Penguin, Team Hooray, and Team Frog were the three finalists (see links within the above link). Team Frog emerged as the winning team, taking home $250, for looking at industrial fines data. Their intro explains the story best:
The 10 biggest fines that the State Industrial Commission levied since 2011 exceeded $65,000, compared to a $9,624 statewide average slapped on 390 total violators in that period.
At the end of presentations, around 3 p.m., Mike McKisson addressed the group, explaining why the instructors chose the winning site. But perhaps more importantly, he said how he and the instructors were blown away by how quickly everyone — ranging in experience from undergrad student to veteran reporter — picked up and applied what we learned.
With a day’s hindsight, I’d say the tools we used weren’t as intimidating, challenging or foreign as I expected. However I wouldn’t say that anyone could absorb and apply them as quickly. Underlying each team’s story and website were the fundamental tactics brought by each journalist in the room: story telling, production, and getting it all done on deadline. The stuff that newsrooms and editorial operations are made of.
I’ll have more thoughts on this as I digest the data viz knowledge being indexed in my brain. For those reading from NewsHackAZ, thanks again. I know it was a first for the hosts, as the hack was a first for me.
If you have the chance to go to a similar news/data hack, do it. It won’t be a waste of your time.
We rolled out of Milford on a hot and humid morning. There wasn’t much for showers where we camped, so we did a hobo-bath at the park bathroom across the river. We stopped in Newtown at the United Dairy Farmers (a convenience store in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky), which kicks total ass and has ice cream, by the way, and loaded up on food. A few folks came up to John and I asking about our trip. Suzie, a home-care nurse, wished us luck, as well as a guy helping a friend move. “Where’s the motor?” he joked, pointing at our bikes.
The OTE took us by Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport, and into downtown along the Ohio River. It was a warm Wednesday afternoon, and the Reds were playing an afternoon game. It was bumping downtown.
When I describe the dynamics of Ohio’s cities to people who don’t know Ohio, I usually say that Cleveland and Cincinnati are tough rivals in every sense: politically, economically, culturally, and in sports. But if you ask people from either city what they think about Columbus, they’ll say, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” and tell you about their brother or in-laws who live there.
In reality, in almost 30 years, I’ve never really spent much time in Cincinnati. And I have to admit, its riverfront park along the Ohio, as well as the routes in and around town, are the best in Ohio. Columbus’ path network is great, no doubt. But Cincinnati is very hilly, so the skyline is obscured unless you’re downtown or close to it. As I rode into town, the city peeked out and gradually revealed itself from behind hills until it all came together with the river, the bridges, and skyline all against a backdrop of Ohio River Valley hills.
It took John and I a while to find the entrance to the Purple People Bridge, the pedestrian-only span across the Ohio to Newport, Kentucky. Once we did, we stopped at a bar for a celebratory Rhinegeist beer before beginning what would be a week of climbing in and out of the Ohio River Valley.
The plan now was to follow the Adventure Cycling’s Underground Railroad route to connect with the TransAmerica trail in western Kentucky. But I realized I didn’t have the maps (Shit!) for this section on paper. Luckily it was loaded into my RidewithGPS. I was a bit annoyed that I’d have to stare at my iPhone for the next few days, but it ended up working. We just had to find our own places to stay.
We made the long slog up and out of Cincinnati and into Kentucky. A few cars honked at us as we remembered what going slow was like. Wound our way through suburbs that gave way to smooth, rolling farmland. What I’d heard about Kentucky was true: the edges of the country and state routes are lined with rumble strips, forcing us further into the road than we’d normally be, and the dogs. We must’ve been chased by about 30 dogs (more on that later).
John and I pushed on to about 8:30 p.m. and made it to Eagle Valley Campground in Sanders. Aside from some RVs already set up for the 4th of July, we were the only people there.
As I set up my camp, a Killdeer bird was squawking at me, doing its fake “I’m dying” kabuki death dance. John explained they do this as an act of self-sacrifice to distract predators from their eggs. I just thought the bird was crazy.