Monday, June 3, 2013

St. Louis to Madison: Unsettling days 1 and 2

At 12:15AM, the night before we were about to set off we were still putting together my bike and discussing the difference between travelling light and travelling foolishly light.  Specifically, we wondered how many tires and tubes we could possibly destroy over three days and 360 miles.  (As it turned out, we needed everything we brought--the two Gatorskins and the seven tubes, two patched twice.)


We didn't know we'd ride over 100 miles of dirt and gravel.  We did figure, based on the weather report, we'd ride through some rain showers.

This is one of many things that distinguishes long-distance bike travel from bike racing--the logistics.

The other notable thing that distinguishes it is the necessity of finishing.  We actually needed to get to Madison.  And none of us was sure our bodies, our equipment, and the weather would hold.

Day 1
119 miles
St. Louis to Havana, IL
When we rose, at 6:00AM on Memorial Day, we did what all cyclists do:  ate like swine, caffeinated like junkies, and looked out the window.  

The rain had come down through the night, and the sky was still wet and dark.  We watched it as we devoured the breakfast our angelic sister-in-law prepared for us:  four eggs each, several pots of coffee, toast, and various other items not nailed to the walls or floors.  

We donned the icons she'd bought for us--soft Madanno del Ghisallo images of the Madonna holding a spare wheel. 


We rolled out and the sky cleared.  The roads were nearly empty as we crossed over the Mississippi into Illinois.



Eventually we turned out of the slight undulations of the Mississippi River valley and hit the black, green, and wet, unglaciated plains of Southern Illinois.  The piled, heavy ice that plowed the Great Lakes never left a mark here, and the plains stretched out and the wind came on steadily.

We hit the plains of Central Illinois by 11:00AM, about 50 miles of our planned 120.  We hit our first dirt stretch on the checkerboard square farm roads that line the endless fields of corn and soybean.  Most were paved, some a kind of rough gravel, and all were narrow. 

The dirt was slow going, but it was also deserted and quiet.  We could hear the birds and each other.

At mile 100 we hit severe dirt, and we'd about run out of energy.  Dark clouds approached, and we rode the last few miles in light rain.  

We spent the night in Sisson's Bed and Breakfast, a vast church-like facility with incredibly endearing hosts.

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After filling us with homemade biscuits and gravy, fruit and coffee, they hugged us, took our picture, and watched us ride out in a driving rain, laughing.  Six in the morning and already them boys ain't right.


Day 2
141 miles
Havana, IL to Sterling, IL
This was a normal Tuesday workday morning and the trucks that had been absent on Memorial Day roared past.  We were immediately soaked, terrified, and blown on by a tailwind, averaged almost 25 mph for the first dozen miles.  Despite an abundance of blinky lights, no one seemed to give us space.  

Soon, though, we crossed the Spoon River and entered Emiquon. The rain and traffic eased, and we settled into the rhythm of the ride.  The only worry was a torn sidewall and several flats--that and an enormous snapping turtle.

The plains undulated slightly more as we headed north and the clear skies held.  Ninety miles in we turned onto a canal path, and our average speed dropped 10 mph.  Washouts, sticks, rocks, low-hanging tree branches--all threatened us, but in the way you hope for when you ride.  Not like a drowsy truck driver bearing down.

Like the C&O, the Hennepin Canal path is packed dirt, but it is less traveled.  Herons startled up from water, squirting white, spaced relatively evenly.  We suffered even more flats on this stretch.

At mile 140 we popped out of the trail, directly to our hotel.

I mentioned in my previous post the idea that travelers--the serious ones you're supposed to respect and admire--all talk about the things that aren't on maps.  My brothers agreed that in Illinois, there really is less on the ground than the map suggests: the villages and cities with such grand names (Brighton, Sterling, Havana) turn out to be only a gas station and empty homes, a handful of retirees.

Only 250 years on from "settlement," the area is quickly un-settling, home now to vast farming operations, not farms.  The remaining people have spent lives resisting the pull of cities have a few children who will soon leave for cities.

And then there are the trucks that pass through, but only on the roads made for passing through.  The rest--if you're on a bicycle--is open and quiet.

I'm glad it is unsettling; the emptiness of people and cars is profound and beautiful.

And the place smells divine.  The entire trip I'd breathed deeply, enjoying a constant, magnificently fresh smell, one so extraordinarily refreshing I'd assumed it was slightly imagined.  Like when you get something on your upper lip.  I realized at one point, since the smell persisted throughout the trip, that that smell was simply the Spring air.  That's what air smells like after several weeks of rain in the spring in Illinois.

I have no idea why.

There were vast strands of wildflowers along the way, but the smell permeated even the black earth farmlands where there was only freshly sprouted corn miles in each direction.  The fresh air made me partly delirious; the slightest indication that we haven't entirely wrecked it all.  The world doesn't yet smell like the Georgetown Canal.

Tomorrow, Wisconsin.

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