Day 60: Valmeyer, IL to St. Louis, MO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

June 11, 2011

Day 60: Valmeyer, IL to St. Louis, MO

The corn fields stand chest-high and dark green and stretch for almost a mile toward the huge bluff that still runs off to my right. I pass farmhouses, barns, fields where flood water still covers the ground, a couple of squished turtles, and clouds of mosquitoes that stick to my body and clothes and lead to a stream of profanity until I can pull over, stop, and scrape their wiggling little bodies off of me. Dead cicadas wet from the overnight thunderstorms stick to the front tire, run up along the inside of the fender, and shoot three feet out in front of me. It's typical country riding, and it's about to come to an abrupt end.

I run into the suburbs around Cahokia. It's a tired-looking, lower middle class city of 15,000. I ride through the crap-filled shoulder of a four-lane highway lined with pawn shops, liquor stores, places offering payday loans and check cashing, and businesses with bars on the windows and heavy locks on every door. The north edge of the town bleeds into miles of industry: warehouses, trucking companies, chemical processing plants, and a twisted network of train tracks that sit silent early on this Saturday morning.

Four of at least 400 of tanks waiting to roll north out of Cahokia.
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The highway dumps me off onto a side road that runs along the edge of East St. Louis, the second-most murderous city in America. Post-apocalyptic is too strong a term to describe the place, but just barely. I see no one walking the streets and only a few cars drive past. Some rough-looking homes remain, but most stand abandoned, boarded up, tagged with graffiti, slowly falling apart. It only takes two miles worth of riding to pass through the city, but in that time I dodge at least a hundred potholes. I ride through low stretches of road that sink beneath a couple of inches of brown water that ripples from the wind shooting down from the north. Railroad lines and freeway overpasses cross a hundred feet above my head. A guy in an old Buick almost runs me over because, hey, fuck you and your bike, white guy.

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I feel a surge of relief when I see the sign that points me to the Eads Bridge. It takes me out of Illinois, over the Mississippi River, and into Missouri. It's a significant moment, a milestone, an inflection point. St. Louis is the largest city I've seen since Miami and the largest I'll ride through the rest of the way. I reach it on day 60 of a trip that should take four months. I'm just over 3,000 miles into a route that will likely end shortly past 6,000. And now that I'm west of the Mississippi, the standards for the largest building, the longest dam, and the biggest body of water have changed completely.

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I write in a cafe south of downtown St. Louis for hours. When I leave in the early evening I head for a house owned by Tery, my Warm Showers host for the night. All I know about the place is that I have to ride north to get there. I backtrack through downtown, among tall buildings with names like Deloitte and Edward Jones plastered on the side. I pass a Hyatt, a Hilton, and even a Four Seasons. I see the stadiums where the Cardinals and the Rams play. It's familiar, even though I've never been here. I could just as easily be passing through Minneapolis, Austin, or Phoenix.

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Then I pedal under an Interstate and into a stretch of blocks filled with brick warehouses, many of which sit completely empty among broken glass, rusted metal, and graffiti. A few cars pass, but no one parks along the curb and only a couple of tired, downtrodden people travel on foot. The place is a shell of what it once was. I try to imagine what this part of the city looked, smelled, and sounded like 50 years ago, when American companies boomed instead of offshored, when it represented everything that could be instead of standing as a reminder of what once was.

Within a few miles I jog to the west, cross back over the same Interstate, and enter a residential neighborhood. I see one modern apartment complex and a couple of newer buildings, but mostly I pass brownstone row houses in varying states of livability, mixed into a patchwork of closed schools, boarded-up businesses, and a surprising number of empty lots overgrown with weeds and tall grass. Every other car that drives past does so with all of its windows down and the volume on its sound system up so high that the buzzing and thumping of the speakers cause the rear license plate and frame to rattle against the back of the trunk. I'm the only person that isn't black. Kids and parents alike stare when I ride slowly past. A few times I check my mirror and watch people on the sidewalk behind me turn around to catch one last look, the same way a man might snap his neck when he sees a beautiful woman walk by.

Tery lives in a brick house built in the 1870s. It's tall and very narrow, which must have seemed less noticeable when it was surrounded on both sides by other houses. Now it stands alone, bordered by a garden full of vegetables and colorful flowers, two chicken coops, and a grassy patch with a small jungle gym. It's like a small slice of the country dropped into the city—a city that makes its presence felt. Kids talk and yell and play at a birthday party on the other side of the back fence. R&B music blasts. Cars drive by fast and loud. It's the kind of place that would make my family, my friends, and almost everyone else I know uncomfortable.

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I'm not completely at ease, either. This isn't like the mostly clean and quiet neighborhood where I live in Seattle, the one that lets me say I live in the city without making me work for it. This is urban, part of the the inner city, a place with energy and soul, with rough edges and a long history. It's a thick slice of an America I haven't yet seen or felt on this trip.

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Forty people sing "Happy Birthday" not quite in unison at the party across the alley. The sounds of sawing and drilling echo from upstairs, where Tery and his friend Danny hang drywall. With a window cracked open a quarter of the way, letting in a cool breeze, I go back and forth between reading a found copy of Dorothy Day's "Loaves and Fishes" and looking out on the street below. The book tells the story of the Catholic Worker movement, the cause that brought Tery to this neighborhood. Through the window I watch kids ride past on bikes. Train whistles blow somewhere far away. An overweight woman leans on the door of her friend's car, pulls a cell phone out of the left side of her gigantic bra, and makes a call to someone who should have showed up at the party half an hour ago. Later, a brown sedan rolls past, windows down, blasting a song called "Let's Get Reckless" at full volume, with a five-year-old girl sitting quietly in the back seat. I think about how, just before I left the cafe a few hours ago, I booked a four-night stay in a four-star hotel downtown for Desiree and I to enjoy when she flies out to visit me. It's unlikely that anyone I see on the street in front of me will ever know how it feels to sleep in a place like that.

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Tery and Danny are both part of the Catholic Worker movement in St. Louis, a group they refer to several times as an intentional community. They provide transitional housing and support for roughly a dozen people in a three-story building across the street. They manage to keep the lights on and the dinner table full without any funding from the Church or the governments at the city, county, state, or federal levels. Both men work as teachers during the school year, where they spend all day in the classroom before coming home to serve meals, take part in meetings, clean up, and keep the old home functioning.

I ask Danny if all the hard work and personal sacrifice is worth it. He doesn't hesitate.

"It's deeply rewarding," he says. "It just fills me with this ... joy. I'm really happy to be part of such an incredible and supportive community."

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"This area used to be completely abandoned," Tery explains. "That's why you see so many open lots and empty buildings."

People have only recently started coming back, which means the density of the area remains low.

"There aren't enough people here to support drug dealers," Tery says. "So they don't come around here and it isn't as much of a problem. And people mostly know why we're here, and they allow us to do our work. But there are worse areas to the north and to the west of here, where the dense neighborhoods and drug problems lead to a lot of violence."

He pauses for half a second and looks in Danny's direction.

"Maybe that's where we really need to be."

It's a selfless statement, and it's completely genuine.

Most Americans want to help people less fortunate than themselves, but it's a generally hollow desire that's much less important than their own interests and comforts, like living in a quiet neighborhood, buying a new laptop, or taking at least one expensive vacation every year. Tery and Danny are among only a handful of people I've ever met who are willing to invest the majority of their time and money into improving the quality of life for people that most of society considers unimportant. From the homeless of Key West, to the poor neighborhoods of Miami Beach, and the run-down double-wides of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and Kentucky, poverty and desperation have been constant traveling companions, just as much as mosquitoes, steep grades, and honey buns. But until today I looked at those problems through the same lens as almost everyone else—as problems to be solved by someone, somewhere, but definitely not by me. As I sit at the old, wooden kitchen table and eat what seems like five pounds of broccoli I feel at the same time impressed by Tery and Danny's work, honored to have been welcomed into their homes and their community, and disappointed for contributing so little to anyone other than myself back home. It's a realization that clouds my mind and distracts my thoughts all evening.

Tery and Danny.
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Tery gets up and walks outside around 9:30, where only a few streaks of light cross a mostly dark sky. He moves his chickens from the pen close to the street and into a covered area in the back of the yard near the alley. He's a pro, managing to herd the chickens into a corner, where he grabs two, places one under each arm, and calmly carries them from one coop to the other. I do my best to help, clumsily picking up one that flaps her wings wildly, makes some agitated noises, and stares back at me with one beady eye and a "What the hell are you doing?" look on her face. I squeeze her firmly against my chest and walk across the yard thinking about how incredibly soft chicken feathers feel, and also how unappealing a chicken biscuit breakfast sandwich now sounds.

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I set up my air mattress and sleeping bag on the hardwood floor of a living room that's being remodeled, in an empty spot among drywall dust, masking tape, and a stack of furniture covered in plastic wrap. I'm stuffed, humbled, amazed, and do my best to make sense of everything I've seen and heard and learned in the past five hours. When I start to lay my head down to sleep I hear a young girl walk past on the sidewalk one level below. As if on cue from a director on a movie set she sings out, in the sweetest, purest, most innocent voice I've ever heard, "Goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite."

Today's ride: 40 miles (64 km)
Total: 3,059 miles (4,923 km)

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