Day 59: Murphysboro, IL to Valmeyer, IL - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 10, 2011

Day 59: Murphysboro, IL to Valmeyer, IL

"Huh," I think. "That's a strange place for a lake, right here in the middle of this field."

The countryside around me runs flat and low and near a river, which in this part of America means flooding. Water fills hundreds of acres on both sides of the road, creeping up to within 20 feet. This sort of thing happens so often that the highway sits on top of a levee lined with huge rocks. The surface of the muddy, cloudy, stagnant, brownish water blips from the landing and taking off of mosquitoes, who swarm me within five seconds of stopping.

Other than the bugs it's great riding—flat roads, all to myself, on a cooler and less humid morning. When I reach slightly higher ground, fields of corn stretch for a mile in the direction of the Mississippi River in a giant swath of green broken up only by small stands of trees and some short, fat, silver metal grain silos. The short bluff that rises off to my right gives shade from the rising sun. I fly north on Highway 3, the most perfect stretch of freshly laid blacktop I've ever seen.

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Just as I work into a groove and pick up a tailwind I feel the back tire turn a little mushy and wobbly.

Shit.

I had the chance to buy a new tire in Carbondale and I didn't do it. It never crossed my mind. I pull off into a gravelly area next to the road and immediately the mosquitoes descend. It's going to be a patch job, not a full fix. I drain the air from the tube, fish the duct tape from last week out of the inside, and try to put in a new seal. The tire's a mess of road dust. My fingers are coated with a fine layer of dirt. The tape's not really sticking but, hey, I'm being eaten alive here—I'm not going to take five minutes to clean everything up. I press down on the half-stuck tape as hard as I can, re-mount the tire, pump the tube, throw my tools back in the bags, and push north hoping for the best.

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Hope fails.

Every mile and a half I feel a squish and a wiggle and pull over. I unscrew the valve, pump the tire, seal things back up, ride a little farther down the road, and then do the same song and dance all over again. Eventually I put another slightly stickier duct tape path over the first. It gets me two miles on a pump, which is better but still a ridiculous waste of time. The shoulder and chest muscles on my right side become tight. I feel anxious. I sweat constantly.

I need something with more grip. Five miles south of Chester, with trucks full of something dredged from the river roaring past me at 60 miles per hour, the light bulb goes off: the glueless patches designed to stop air from leaking out of a punctured inner tube. I'm so proud of myself that I laugh like a crazy person as I pull them out of the tool bag and place two over the inch-long slice in the sidewall.

It works. Praise Jesus, Allah, and Buddha—it works.

Patches everywhere.
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"What you got in that bottle?" asks one of the five old guys sitting in the corner booth of the fast food place located near the center of town in Chester. "Is that Mountain Dew in there? Looks kinda like urine! They wanted me to ask ya what was in there. I'll ask anybody anything."

"It might be," I tell him. "Wanna give it a try?"

All five bust up laughing.

Then they ask me about my trip—everyone, all at once. I pick one of the questions, shout out an answer over all of the yelling and cackling, and then laugh at their cliched old man responses. I get several questions about how long a set of tires lasts, which comes as no surprise, because every man, in every state in America so far, has asked me about the bike's tires. I decide that when I get home I'm writing a pilot for a television show about the wear patterns of touring bicycle tires and then pitching it to the major networks in Hollywood. The potential audience is enormous.

Once the guy at the middle of the table has heard all of the details about me, my trip, and my gear he's ready to make his decision.

"Well that's just great," he says with a smile and a subtle nod, "I'm all for it. Ya must not be married, though."

"No, but I've got a girlfriend," I say. "She's an amazing girl. I'm really lucky."

"Don't she miss ya while ya gone?"

"Yeah, she really does, but we talk a lot and she keeps up with the journal every day. And she's flying out to St. Louis next week to see me, so we'll be back together soon."

"Ahhh, I see. That'll be good for ya. Rest up a little, get back on the road replenished, if ya know what I mean."

Big laughs all around.

"Not that any of us know what that's like!" he says with a smile.

"But we got good memories at least!" another guy yells out.

It goes on that way for 20 minutes.

I get a huge round of good lucks, have funs, and god blesses on my way out the door. It's another reminder that a country without hilarious, bullshitting, coffee-drinking old men is not a country I want to live in.

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I walk out of the Chester Public Library at 11:30. It's 87 degrees, which now seems cool. High clouds help block the sun, a breeze blows, and the back tire still holds air. For the first time in a week, riding in the middle of the day doesn't seem like a perverse kind of torture. The TransAm goes west, taking a bridge over the Mississippi River and passing into Missouri. I ride north along the river's eastern shore instead, sticking with Illinois on a beat-up old road with no lane markers that was mostly underwater just a couple of weeks ago. It's a flat stretch and I have it all to myself. I pedal with strong legs and a smile on my face.

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I pass half a dozen Road Closed or Barricade Ahead signs that no one bothered to take down after the flood waters dropped. Then I come around a corner and find a pond sitting where the pavement should go. An ATV passes through ahead of me without a problem, so there's no chance I'm turning around. I pull off my shoes, stuff my sweaty, disgusting, brownish-white socks inside the shoes, and strap them on top of my tent. With the sharp metal grips of the pedal digging into my bare feet I slowly ride into the water. The bottom of the chain sinks below the surface right away, and within a hundred feet the hubs do the same. The lower half of the front panniers plow through and give off a wake. The water is brown, nasty, unmoving, and surely diarrhea-inducing if drunk, but it's just clear enough that I can see the road at the bottom. It takes less than two minutes to reach dry land on the other side, pull on my shoes and socks, and ride away.

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I sing "America the Beautiful" in my head as I ride past fields filled with amber waves of grain. It's the Illinois I expected all along—flat and full of crops, tractors, canals, and headwinds.

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The tiny town of Modoc has exactly one business: a tavern called Boondocks. I'm hot, my dry eyes are giving me hell, and the place looks like a serious dive. I have to stop.

The bell hanging on the door clanks as I walk in and grab a seat at a tall table across from the bar. The inside smells of smoke. It's a dim place, where half the light streams in through the dirty plate glass windows in the front, and the other half comes from the Budweiser, Busch, and Miller Lite neon signs that hang on every wall. An old, dark brown piano sits in one corner; a 30-year-old cigarette vending box with a pull-down handle like a slot machine glows in another. The Rock-Ola Model 8000 jukebox behind me offers music from George Strait, Patsy Cline, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. "His" and "Hers" are written in black permanent marker on the wooden bathroom doors. All of the coat racks are made from horseshoes.

I walk up to the bartender. She's young, pregnant, and wears thin-rimmed glasses and a white tank top with "Modoc Girls" printed on the front. When I ask if they have a food menu, she points up to a board behind her with the words "Menu (Frozen Food)" written below a Coors Light logo. After I order mozzarella sticks, she pulls out a box from the freezer and drops half a dozen of the sticks into a dirty microwave.

On one side of the bar sits a 50-year-old man, who smokes and looks around but talks to no one. On the other, a 40-something man and woman, both with long and curly hair, smoke and then drink from cans of Busch beer in a steady rotation. An awful movie with Frankie Muniz and Amanda Bynes plays on the big-screen TV. Everyone watches, even me, because no one's willing to find the remote and change the channel. When the woman takes a break from her Busch and offers up a cigarette, the pregnant bartender hesitates for a moment before grabbing it and lighting up.

The tire is partly flat when I head back outside an hour later. A few drops of water leak down the side of the valve stem, and when I twist the valve open and push down a steady stream of hot water shoots out and collects in a puddle on the ground. I have no idea how that's even possible. As I smooth out the patch and pump up the tube for the tenth time, the Busch-drinking woman steps out onto the sidewalk.

"Hot enough for ya?" she says in a rough, gravelly sounding voice.

I laugh and tell her it's not as bad today, and that as long as I keep moving I feel good. We talk for a few minutes about where I'm going, where I started, and where I sleep—the same line of questions I answer every day.

"Well good luck," she tells me. "My name's Billie. That guy in there with me's Bob. He tells ever' one we's Billie Bob, thinks it's just the funniest thing."

She pauses for a moment.

"We been together 'bout nine months. He's a goofy guy. Always been a little goofy, but now he's on these pain meds and it's gettin' outta control. He wants to go on up to Evansville today. I dunno why. If it gets too crazy I'll take over the wheel. Good thing I know how to drive stick."

I'm not sure how the conversation went from bike touring to a drugged-up drive to Evansville, Illinois, but mostly I keep my mouth shut. The farther I travel, the more I realize that sometimes people just need someone—anyone, even a dirty stranger with an unfamiliar accent traveling on an overloaded bike—to listen to whatever's been kicking around in their head. It used to seem strange, but I've also discovered that most Americans are completely awful at carrying on a conversation. They're happy to talk about themselves at length, but tend to ignore what's being said in response by the person standing in front of them. Instead, they anxiously hold back the words piling up behind their tongue, ears mostly closed, not-so-patiently waiting for the chance to start yammering again. By asking questions and listening as much as I can, I inadvertently turn into a cruising confessional, a rolling release valve.

Bob walks out the door a few minutes later.

"Hey Bob," Billie says. "This guy's ridin' all the way 'cross the country on this bike."

"Whoa! Hey, that's great!" he says, his head nodding and light brown hair bouncing. "You need a place to stay, man? You can camp around back if ya want. We've let bike riders do that before."

I tell him thanks, but explain that it's a little early to stop, that I want to keep riding in the evening when it's cooler.

"How ya end up here anyway?" he asks. "Why ain't ya on the highway?"

"I'd rather take the back roads," I tell him. "There's less traffic, it's more scenic, and they take me through places that I wouldn't get to see otherwise."

"Places like this, out in the boondocks!" he says as he starts to laugh and points up to the Boondocks sign above our heads.

Places like this. Exactly. Together they help reveal the America I set out to find, telling in scattered bits and pieces a story that's richer and more captivating than I ever expected.

"My name's Bob," he tells me. "But ya can call me The Blob! Everyone else does!"—and then he sets off laughing hysterically.

"Here, take this," he says, and hands me a cold can of Pepsi. "Ya need anything else, man? My sister owns this place. Anything ya want."

I thank him for the offer. I tell him that I'm doing great, that I'm all set. In the moment I'm only talking of food and water, but it's just as true in the greater context of the trip. The heat and the mechanical problems and the physical challenges of bike travel are all footnotes. Thanks to this beautiful country and the wonderful people I've met, out here on the road I'm completely happy. I have everything I need.

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North of Prairie du Rocher I pass a long line of massive cave openings. Each time I ride in front of one a blast of cool air pours out and wraps itself around me. It's probably filled with carcinogens and other terrible residue from the mining operations that take place deep in the ground below, but on a hot and sweaty 90-degree evening, who the hell cares? The rocky bluffs follow me for hours, rising straight up on my right side as flood water from the Mississippi soaks the grass on the left. The sky turns overcast, the winds give me a push, and I cruise through a beautiful world of greens and yellows and blues that help me remember why I fell in love with this kind of traveling.

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I roll into Valmeyer and find one of the country's most amazing Little League baseball fields. It's actually less a field and more a ballpark, with a perfectly groomed infield, a large electric scoreboard in center field, and covered dugouts. The grandstands behind home plate have a roof, ceiling fans, and six rows of folding green chairs that wouldn't look out of place in a major league stadium. It's one of the last things I expected to see in a town without even one restaurant, grocery store, or mini-mart.

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I set up the tent under the cover of a nearby picnic pavilion and quickly dive inside to escape the bugs. It's a cooler, drier evening and I can move without sweating. The edges of the clouds glow a reddish orange and a breeze blows. Later I see lightning flashing far off to the west, sometimes in soft, white blasts, others in golden, jagged bolts. Passing trains blow their whistles to say goodnight.

Today's ride: 78 miles (126 km)
Total: 3,019 miles (4,859 km)

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