Wednesday, May 22, 2013

St. Louis to Madison: Don't tell them we're damned fools

If you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don't tell them he's a damned fool, they'll never find out.
Life on the Mississippi

What is on the road from St. Louis, Missouri to Madison, Wisconsin?  I'm about to find out.  My two brothers and I are planning on making the trip, by bike, in three days next week.

The map suggests we'll see the following:  a big river, some small hills, and a lot of nothing.  But that's the nature of maps--they tend to be mostly space, when in fact there are millions of things swirling around through the unnamed ether.

The apparent point of travel, especially travel by foot or bike, is to get from A to B.  The true point of travel, as every travel writer says, assuming profundity, is the opposite sentiment, captured in the mantra it's about the journey.

Like a lot of mantras, it's about the journey is not only a saying of the wise; it's also a coping mechanism for the foolish and unlucky.  It's in the same category as the following:

  • True beauty is on the inside.
  • Cheaters never prosper.
  • Don't cry over spilt milk.
  • What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.

To get to profundity instead of just transporting from A to B, to remember that it is about the journey, sometimes the journey has to be hard.

This trip will certainly be hard, but not in the way the current Giro is hard, with its Dolomites, its snow, and its thousands of kilometers.  It'll be hard because there are few places in America less glorious to ride a bike than from St. Louis to Missouri.

The views, the history, and the people of Illinois and southern Wisconsin are generally unremarkable up close.  Right?

Then why, you ask, are three middle-aged dudes embarking on such a trip?

Because the eldest brother, who lives in St. Louis, insisted.  The insisting went something like this:

Eldest:  "I'm going to ride to Madison [where our parents live].   You should join me."
Youngest:  "If we're going to ride, how about we go to Raw Talent Ranch in Matthias, West Virginia?"
Middle:  "How about you come out to Portland and we ride in the mountains in the day and drink beer and visit food trucks at night?"
Eldest, firmly:  "I'm doing it.  St. Louis to Missouri.  You can come if you want."

So, we bought plane tickets and perused maps of little towns and villages.

Towns like Alton, Illinois the birthplace and hometown of the world's tallest ever man, Alton Giant, Robert Wadlow, who stood 8'11" and was still growing even as he died, but unfortunately failed to quite reach 9', although achieving the height he did achieve put Alton on the map (until Alton gave us another kind of giant in Miles Davis).
The Alton Giant
Villages like Godfrey, IL near where Louis and Clark officially started their famous voyage, although, being from Virginia, they certainly had to travel to get to the official starting point.  .01% of Godfrey's 16,268 citizens are Pacific Islanders, which is half the percentage of Pacific Islanders in the greater Illinois (.02%) population, so we'll count ourselves lucky if we do happen to spot any PacIslanders in Godfrey.

We then pass through Brighton (which, at .05% PacIslander, is relatively infested with them).  Brighton prides itself on burgoo, a kind of stew made with various varmints, but if we want to visit the global center of burgoo, we'd have to deviate 50 miles eastward to the Burgoo Capital of the World, Franklin, IL (pop. 586).

Palmyra, Syria
Onward, at mile 60, through Palmyra, named after an ancient Syrian city, and meaning, "the town that repels."  Not that anyone in Palmyra, IL is especially concerned about Syria.  Palmyra has an opera house, so something artistic (or at least an attempt at artistry) must have happened there at some point.

Miles 75 brings us to Waverly, whose claim is an annual "Old Fashioned Picnic" that includes an event called the "bumpy wagon."  Our taints will, I anticipate, advise us not to partake.

Somewhere around Havana, Illinois, we'll stop for the night.

My brothers and I will start day two by riding through Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, which sits on the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois Rivers.  Emiquon is America's second-largest wetlands restoration project, behind the Everglades.  In 2008 volunteers planted 3,000 black walnut trees and turned off drainage pumps, allowing lakes and wetlands to swell. Take that, China!

 On through Maryville, where three years ago Terry Sedlacek walked into the First Baptist Church and shot a man he'd never met, the Reverend Fred Winters.  His family blame Lyme's disease for his "erratic behavior."

We'll then hit one of those Midwestern, perfectly as-the-crow-flies flat and straight roads running absolutely northeastward to the village of St. David, whose population is "mostly Croatian and Italian" but is also, so the census claims, 99.93% white and .17% African American.  The Pacific Islanders that so peppered Southern Illinois with their pineapples and ukuleles are not to be found.

We then take absolutely ray-of-light straight I-78 by Big Creek Park (a misnomer if you ask me, since a big creek is, technically, a river) through Norris and Farmington, which was a Sundown town--that is, off-limits to African-Americans--through 1970.  1970!


Kewanee at mile 200.

"Hardware Capital of the World" (when hardware had nothing to do with computers) Sterling.

Freeport, where Lincoln debated Douglas in his losing Senate race.

Cedarville, birthplace of Jane Addams.

Mile 300: Orangeville, home to numerous fraternal organizations, and a thriving Independent Order of Odd Fellows chapter.  No orange trees grow in this Orangeville.

Onward into Wisconsin and the "Swiss Cheese Capital of the US," Monroe, then a Belleville Rendez-Vous.

Somewhere, finally, we'll hit a trail that will take us all the way to Madison.

It's a foolish trip undertaken by three damned fools.

It will surely lead to misery and suffering.  But in some ways, that's the point.

We leave on Memorial Day.  Hopefully, our bikes and our bodies hold out, and we make it.  If we do, I'll let you know

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