It took only two days to ride across the southern tip of Illinois from the Ohio River to the Mississippi. After a quick auto ferry ride into the state from Kentucky, I persuaded Rob to split the cost of a room in the lodge at Cave-in-Rock State Park (he is a Happy Camper while I am sometimes no better than a grudging one). From Cave-in-Rock, we rode one longish day to Carbondale. The riding was good, but surprisingly hilly in away from the river. The second day, featuring 10 or 15 miles across flat, fertile Mississippi River floodplain, ended at Chester.
Early May in southern Illinois was nothing like April in Delaware or Virginia; everything was green, the sun was more reliable and temperatures were crawling up into and even through the 70s. Things had changed a lot during our 3 weeks on the road, and in fact our progress had started to come quickly enough to be disconcerting -- we barely had time to adjust to where we had just got before we were suddenly somewhere new. Indeed only days before, we had been struggling with the last of the Appalachian mountains but now we were as far west as St. Louis, the original Gateway to the West, and about to cross the Mississippi River. It was a heady thing, but at the same time a little hard to believe.
In two short days Illinois supplied more than its share of pleasant recollections:
-- The Ohio River. The Ohio River didn't look like much from the ferry, just a flat brown thing, but from higher up it was magnificent. Early in the evening at Cave-in-Rock, Rob had gone off to make a phone call and I was sitting on the balcony of our room with half a bottle of wine (I had learned my lesson, stuck high and dry at Breaks Interstate) and my feet up. It was a hazy, featureless dusk. The river below was broad, soundless and slow. Every so often a huge barge, hundreds of feet long and piled high with coal, would churn by. A single farmhouse and a couple of cultivated fields were visible near the horizon but otherwise all I could see was trees and river. It was silent, and infinitely relaxing. Part of me wishes I had the strength of character to rely on memory to preserve moments like that, but I am weak and leapt for the camera. The photo came out pretty well.
-- Ted from Holland. Rob and I had spent an hour and a half chewing the fat (as well as free cheese & mustard sandwiches) with the owner of a tiny grocery store a couple hours outside of Cave-in-Rock and were just again underway when we spied a loaded cyclist coming toward us on the road ahead. We were beside ourselves -- this was the first other cycle tourist we had seen! -- and eagerly rode across the road to greet him.
It was hard to tell right off what to make of the fellow. Trim, deeply tanned and with a shortcropped graying beard, he was wearing a brown button-down shirt, funky floppy hat, baggy khaki pants held around his waist by shoelaces, and hiking boots. His bike held a small set of panniers, what appeared to be a tent, and a small handlebar bag. No odometer, no lights. Was he a vagabond like Sam in Virginia? A local eccentric? No, neither; he was merely foreign!
Ted was a delight. He had started riding in San Francisco in March, and his destination was Boston. He was following a route of his own invention, pieced together at home in Holland from Rand McNally road maps mail ordered from the United States. He said that the green "scenic routes" were working out quite well, though he had met few -- well, no -- other cyclists in his seven weeks on the road. He was sleeping in barns, fields, front yards or wherever else he could persuade someone to let him set up his tent. No campgrounds (too expensive, too structured) and certainly no hotels. This highly streamlined style won Rob's quick admiration -- Rob as I mentioned being something more of minimalist than me -- and the two new friends took turns disparaging my moral indiscipline. Hm.
Ted couldn't contain his enthusiasm for the United States, and became quite animated as he told us about his adventure. "You have such amazing and beautiful things in your country, the people are wonderful, so friendly -- and your freedoms!" (He also liked Las Vegas a lot.) The comment about "freedoms" seemed a little incongruous; I mean, the guy was from Holland, not Albania -- but his excitement was utterly contagious and for the rest of the day Rob and I couldn't stop talking about how lucky we were to be making this trip.
-- The Bike Surgeon. In Carbondale we spent a night with the Bike Surgeon (Mark Robinson to his mother and banker), who for years has been offering free lodging and bike repair to cyclists on the Transamerica Trail. He was a pretty interesting guy. Thirty-seven years old and looking a bit like Ted Nugent (albeit without that peculiar bloodlust that Nugent sometimes gets in his eyes), Mark had moved to Carbondale from Long Island maybe 10 or 15 years before. He runs a bike shop and a limousine & bus service out of his house (which had been a grocery store until he decided to move into it), and finished a close second in the mayoral race in 1996. He's accommodating beyond all reason, and as best as I can tell, it's just because he likes it.
We arrived around eight in the evening, just in time to join Mark and a couple of friends for hamburgers hot off the grill, homemade french fries and the Simpsons. Instant family! That night Rob slept on the floor of the bike shop and I got the living room. In the morning Mark's sidekick Dave appeared kind of out of nowhere and within 20 minutes had our bikes up on the stand for cleaning and adjusting.
The Bike Surgeon was impossibly generous with his time and energy. More amazing still is that when we asked what we could do to repay his kindness, he handed us a stack of flyers and told us to be sure to distribute them to any other cyclists we might see.
-- Chester, Illinois. Elzie Segar, creator of Popeye, was born in Chester. All of Segar's cartoon characters, including of course Popeye, Wimpy and Olive Oyl, were modeled on Chester residents. This friendly town milks the Popeye connection for all its worth -- among other things there's a Popeye statute, a Popeye gazebo and a memorabilia store where they sell a lot of spinach.
Page posted October 7, 1997