Day 57: Eddyville, IL to Carbondale, IL - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 8, 2011

Day 57: Eddyville, IL to Carbondale, IL

I check the clock just before I push out: 5:20 a.m. It's the earliest I've ever been on the road, but it's already light enough that I barely need to use the bike's flashing lights, and I feel like I should have started 15 minutes before. I've read about people riding through Kansas who set out at 4:00 in the morning to beat the heat and wind. I always thought that sounded crazy. I don't anymore.

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Even though it's early, Illinois isn't cool, just less hot. Every surface, including my skin, feels wet to the touch. Yet it's the best riding experience in the better part of a week. Deer and rabbits shoot across the fields when I pass. The tires crunch a few unlucky cicadas. Dogs bark, but not one gives chase. Drivers wave on their way by. I cheer out loud when a band of high clouds park themselves in front of the sun and buy me an extra half-hour of less-terrible weather.

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A short, squat, 75-year-old man dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots, a red checkered shirt, and a tan cowboy hat limps into the restaurant in Goreville.

"How's yer git along?" asks one of the five old guys sitting around the long table at the center of the restaurant.

"Gittin' along!" he says as he shuffles to the far end of the table and takes a seat.

The wall closest to me is covered with pictures and paintings of war scenes, and images of people who grew up in Goreville and went on to serve in the Armed Forces. Country music plays quietly in the background. The old timers bitch about Medicare, the price of gas, and how the hell that guy up the way managed to stack that pile of coal so high. It's not angry or mean-spirited, it's just what they do. I ask the guys if it's always this hot around here in June, which turns out to be a great question because it lets them complain some more.

"Naw, it's way 'bove normal," the man closest to me explains. "We didn't have no spring 'round here this year. Just a went from all the rain and cold and right into this heat."

"You been hearin' those chick-adas out theah, I bet," says another guy, who looks like the youngster of the group in his mid-60s.

I tell him I have.

"First time they been out here in 13 yeahs. It's a long cycle. Get to bein' so loud out theah that ya sometimes can't even heah yaself think. 'Bout the time you headin' outta heah they be all gone and quieted back up for anothah 13 yeahs."

American as apple pie. That's how the saying goes. I propose a change: American as old men sitting around, drinking coffee, and complaining. This trip across the country would be so much less entertaining without the grumbling, laughing, back-slapping, well-wishing retired guys who flock to the free coffee and good company of small-town restaurants and cafes like blood-hungry mosquitoes to a touring biker.

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The oddly-named Lick Creek Road throws me a break. Rough and barely a lane wide it twists through gentle rollers and patches of shade. When steep hills pop up I can fly down the back side of one and zoom most of the way up the next. A tailwind pushes me past old farms with sagging fences and hip-high grass that grows to the road's edge. I feel like I've won the Southern Illinois backroad lottery. I initiate waves at farmers as they pass by slowly in their Dodge Ram pickups, something that surprises even me and reveals just how great I feel.

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But as the sun and heat and humidity go, so goes my mood. I hardly stop on the last push to Carbondale, when all I want is to make it to a motel and escape from the weather for the rest of the day. I ride to the post office on the west side of town, where I had a new back tire and another package shipped a few days ago. I feel relief when I walk inside, partly because of the air conditioning, but mostly because I won't have to worry about the duct tape patch on the tire's sidewall any more. I hold out my ID as I walk up to the counter and tell the woman I have two general delivery packages to pick up.

"Oh, I'm sorry, we don't do general delivery here," she tells me. "You'll have to go to the main post office."

Carbondale, we're off to a bad start.

"Where can I find it?" I ask.

"It's back on the east side of town," she says. "It's out next to the mall."

The mall. Two words no bike rider ever wants to hear. Malls mean busy four-lane roads, crowded intersections, and drivers more concerned about buying a trashy-looking tank top or an hours-old Cinnabon than safely passing by the fool on the bike with all the crap strapped to it.

I head east to find the motel. I've heard some good things about Carbondale and about Southern Illinois University, the college that takes up a large part of the city. What I soon realize is that either those things either apply only to the campus, or I've been fed a long line of bullshit. The place turns out to be completely unremarkable at best, and kind of a dump around the edges. I ride down long, straight blocks, past homes that could exist in any other Midwestern town, rumble over a few sets of train tracks, and pedal down the sidewalk facing rushing traffic, in front of liquor stores, mini-marts, pizza places, oil-change shops, a Chinese buffet restaurant, and some tired-looking motels.

One of the tired-looking motels is mine. It used to be a Motel 6, but the company dropped their affiliation. That's not a good sign. At first the room looks normal: brightly colored spreads on each of the double beds, a curtain with a noisy pattern that almost matches but not quite, a 20-year-old TV sitting on a cheap wooden desk, two lamps connected to a fixture that bolts to the wall, and two framed prints of flowers mounted above the beds. I turn on the air conditioner because I crave the cool, but even after running through all of the available settings I only get a blast of hot air.

"It's just warming up," I tell myself. "I'll go take a shower and it'll be better when I get out."

The floor of the shower near the drain has at least five dead bugs. I don't notice until I turn on the water, which hits the drain and instantly shoots the bugs back across the tub toward my feet. I'm creeped out for two seconds, but feel so sweaty and sticky and dirty and awful that I just say "Fuck it" and take the shower I've been dreaming about for hours. All goes well until the hot water inexplicably shuts off, never to come back, leaving me to rinse my body and hair in a weak stream of freezing cold. When I step out and onto the permanently stained linoleum floor, two tiny roaches scurry across behind the toilet and into a crack in the wall. I turn around and see another climbing the shower wall.

The cold water turns out to be a blessing. The air conditioner has been blowing warm air into the room for 20 minutes, making it only slightly less hot and humid than the dirty parking lot that sits on the other side of the door. I'm too beaten down by everything to care, so I sit on the bed, turn on the TV, and flip through its 40 cable channels in a loop that never stops. It's not the beautiful, triumphant picture of crossing America I so carefully painted in my head over the last four years.

I'm sitting on the bed, typing on the laptop, when a bug walks across the top edge of the screen. I flick it off and let out a low, grumbling, growling, angry sound. I have to get away from this awful place. I wheel the bike out of the scorching room, hop on, and ride a mile and a half to the other post office, mostly on the sidewalk, cursing this stupid, ugly town that I hate so much.

Behind one of these doors sits a clean, decent room. Behind the other, bugs and a dirty shower and a broken conditioner. It's like a real-life game of The Price is Right and I picked wrong.
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I walk up to the counter expecting two packages. I leave with none, and curse loudly enough on my way past the line of waiting customers that I get a couple of strange looks. A check of the tracking information for the first package shows that UPS won't deliver it because the address is bad -- even though I used the official address for the building supplied by the Postal Service. Somehow they have the technology to deliver a pallet of hot pants to the jungles of Bangladesh in three days, but routing a small package to a huge post office in Illinois can't be done. The other box, the rear tire I really need, was shipped by the Postal Service. The tracking details show me that it made the trip from the bike shop in Wisconsin to Carbondale without a problem. It even spent five hours in the post office building where it was supposed to end up. And then, for some reason I can't begin to figure out, it was marked as having a bad address and returned to Milwaukee. It was here and they sent it back. It's as if I invented some crazy new shipping paradigm when I added the "General Delivery" label to the address block.

First the heat, then the motel, and now this. Fuck you, Carbondale. Fuck this terrible day.

With all the patience I have left, I ride back to the motel, walk into the office, and ask for a room with an air conditioner that works. I look unhinged enough that neither the man nor the woman behind the counter ask any questions. As it turns out, I only have to move next door. Later, as I lay on the bed, I notice the drawstring from the tent hanging down from the rear rack, dangling directly to the left of the wheel. If it had been sucked into the spokes I could have found myself in a world of physical and mechanical hurt. I got very lucky. A few hours after that I watch a History Channel show about America's Dust Bowl era, where decades of unhealthy farming practices and an epic drought came together and led to mammoth dust and dirt storms that changed the landscape, killed people and livestock, and made the basic activities of daily life a challenge for six years. Six years! I've had one unpleasant day. Suddenly things seem not so bad at all.

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I spend hours laying down, happy not to be spread out on a foul, discolored air mattress in a pool of my own sweat like last night. The lampshade gently rocks from the cold breeze that comes out of the air conditioner. I drink water from a line of plastic cups to rehydrate. I'm showered and clean and full on pizza. I still can't wait to leave Carbondale, but I decide not to set the city on fire on my way out of town.

Today's ride: 62 miles (100 km)
Total: 2,925 miles (4,707 km)

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