Bicycling connects Missoula man’s past, present

2012-02-02T12:45:00Z 2012-03-01T10:26:42Z Bicycling connects Missoula man’s past, presentBy KEILA SZPALLER of the Missoulian missoulian.com
February 02, 2012 12:45 pm  • 

Arlen Hall was pedaling alone in the Deep South when the driver of a big green pickup truck came up honking behind him.

Hall, who is black, had tried to get some friends to join him on the Mississippi bicycle tour to be safe. Instead, he turned alone to face the driver blaring the horn of the truck, maybe an old Ford.

That encounter in Canton, Miss., would turn the solo bicycle ride into the most important trips, he has ever taken. Hall, who owned a software company, planned to bike the Natchez Trace Parkway with friends but started the journey by himself on a personal side trip.

The honking horn unsettled the Massachusetts man whose father is African American and mother is German. Then, out of the truck jumped a little old lady, a white little old lady named Madge Noble, 84.

The cyclist remembers her announcement: "You look like you're a man on a mission. You're having lunch with me."

Hall, who moved to Missoula last year, has been cycling for most of his life and guiding youth tours since his sons were young. He was taking this trip for himself, and his destination was Midnight, Miss., the home of his ancestors.

In the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Midnight, his grandfather was born, his great-grandfather was a deacon, and his great-grandmother played the organ. His great-great-great-grandfather, London, was a slave who fought in the Civil War.

Arlen Hall had planned to be in Midnight around 3 p.m. Instead, Madge Noble, a widow who had been married to the local sheriff and loved to travel and tell stories, fed him Southern cooking and tales of Canton, and the traveler and the hostess talked for most of the afternoon.

"She put on this magnificent lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, okra, corn on the cob," Hall said.

Midnight is 60 miles away, and the delay proved fortuitous. By the time Hall reached the small farming town of 200 people, it was around 7:30 p.m.

As Hall walked downtown in his bicycle gear, an older gentleman approached him. The man was a deacon in the church, and when he learned Hall wanted to connect with his ancestors and see their church, the man invited him inside.

There, Hall saw the yellowed deacon rolls that kept record of his family members. The church had been rebuilt, but he saw the cornerstone that was part of the church where his grandfather was born.

Soon, even though it was the middle of the week, people started pulling into the driveway of the house of God. It was Revival Week, and church ladies in all white and men in black suits invited Hall to worship with them.

The biker, who had pitched his tent on the property, found a pair of wind pants and a clean T-shirt. He joined them, and he shared his story.

Had he arrived in Midnight on time, at 3 p.m., he never would have seen the deacon rolls, never would have set foot inside the church of his ancestors.

"I totally had that experience only because Madge was in my life in Canton, Mississippi, when I rode through earlier that day," Hall said.

On that trip, Hall also visited Alcorn State College, where his great-grandparents studied, and he sat on a wrought iron staircase they walked up and down every day.

"It was like they were sitting right there with me," Hall said.

***

That trip was in 2009, and the treasures he found have stayed with him.

"Personally, it was the most significant trip that changed my life. It just gave me a new perspective on the importance of family," Hall said. "Now, my kids were doing that a lot anyway because that's where it all started. But it really grounded me in realizing that the most important thing is not what I own, but what I have, the intangibles that I have."

Relationships. Children. Cycling. Heritage.

February is Black History Month, and Hall will honor African Americans on his Facebook page all month long.

"Every day during Black History Month, I change my Facebook profile to be some reasonably famous African American, and I post as my status their history ... My family all chimes in, and they all tell stories," said Hall, 53.

He'll post about Marshall "Major" Taylor, the first African American world champion cyclist who biked "during a time when African Americans weren't supposed to be cycling." He'll post about George Washington Carver, too, who also has a connection to cycling, if you think the way Hall does.

Carver championed the peanut and its many uses, and Hall is a fan of one in particular: "I love peanut butter. It's like the cyclist's energy food. It's perfect, so I play him up a lot."

Life for Hall revolves around cycling, and it's how he ended up in Missoula.

In Massachusetts after his sons were born, he started becoming more focused on family life. Through his church and then on his own, he led youth groups on bicycle tours raising money for the Jett Foundation, which helps people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. One year, they raised at least $100,000 for the cause.

Slowly, Hall started backing away from his lucrative software company, and he began to simplify his life. He began making his living through bicycle touring, and he took a class on guiding trips through the Adventure Cycling Association.

When the tour director job opened in Missoula, Hall sent his children the job description. They said it read like he had written it for himself, and Hall got the job.

His son Brandon Hall, a student at the University of New Hampshire, said his father took on biking as a fulltime job while he already had another fulltime job. So the gig with Adventure Cycling is a perfect fit.

"Now, he can just ride his bike to work every day and talk about biking all day with other people who want to talk about biking all day," said Brandon Hall. "He says it, too. Essentially, he got his dream job."

It's similar to the way Arlen Hall was led to Madge Noble in Canton and his family history in Midnight, Mississippi. His bicycle takes him to sure destinations: "I'm a firm believer that cycling brings you to places, especially for me, to places that I need to be."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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