44 – Hitler's Flying Saucers - Travels with Walter - CycleBlaze

July 12, 2015

44 – Hitler's Flying Saucers

"We had nineteen inches a rain in June and so far in July," says the woman behind the counter at the mini-mart. "Farmers are all about to give up. It's not good for the rest of us. As the farmers go, that's how we all go, ya know what I mean?"

"Yeah, we've heard a lot of people tell us it's a crop insurance year," I say.

"Well, for some of 'em that works. Those who got it, maybe. But not all of 'em do. And a lotta the time the insurance only covers hail damage, and we haven't had any a that. Just all this rain."

And the forecast for the next week says it's not going away any time soon.

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We give humanized voice to the thousands of worms that wandered out onto the pavement during last night's torrential rains in between dodging or just powering through the standing water that sits at random intervals on the roads. Despite the flats my shirt turns soaked from sweat before the end of the first mile and stays that way. But in fact we're lucky. The woman at the mini-mart described the heat that's coming to this part of the country for the next week as ungodly. At least we've got one more day until it shows up.

The water's still a little high.
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The peaks and valleys of Walter's health and sickness continue to sit at the front of our minds. Last night it seemed like he was getting better; this morning he seems tired and weak and won't eat much. The fact that he's still drinking a lot and at least eating something tells us he's not in serious danger. But he's not recovering on his own, and that means it's time to take him to a doctor. There's nothing we can do today because it's Sunday and no clinics are open. Instead we plan to press on to Odell today, then head south at first light tomorrow morning toward a vet's office in Pontiac. From there we'll beeline it to Burlington in Iowa, just across the Mississippi. We'll be off the road there for a week and Walter should have enough time to recover for the long haul yet to come.

Until then we'll worry.

Our little gentleman.
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After battling impatient drivers on U.S. Highway 52, we stop for a few hours in Ashkum at a gas station clogged with I-57 refugees. It gives us a chance to watch these people have mayonnaise in amounts I'd call ungodly squirted across the upper half of their Subway sandwiches. It also gives Walter a chance to sleep. Long riding days can be hard on him even when he's healthy, but with sickness taking away his strength it's an even bigger concern.

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A symphony of popping tar bubbles echoes up from our tires as the interstate traffic turns smaller and smaller in our rear view mirrors. We continue to head a little north and a lot west within the heart of a gridded system of farm roads that stretch for a hundred miles or more in all directions. Gnats become stuck in the slicks of sunscreen that cover both of my arms and distract me from the butterflies of yellow or white or black and orange that angle through the air above the purple flowers that line the road. When they see us coming too late to avoid contact, they bounce off our chests or shoulders without a sound and then continue on like nothing happened.

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Giant wind generators tower over the table-flat lands that surround us. But the wind has taken a rest on this Sunday and the long white turbine blades all stay frozen in place, each standing idle at an angle a few degrees different than all of its neighbors. We talk about how the fourteen-mile straight stretch laid out in front of us is nothing compared to the ninety-mile straight we covered in a single day on the Nullarbor Plain in Australia back in February. We can't say the same of the humidity. The breeze created by our motion keeps us cool when we pedal, but all of the moisture in the air out here means that as soon as we stop sweat pours in unending waves down our legs, our arms, our foreheads, and the backs of our necks.

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A tiny ladybug lands on the left leg of my shorts and hitches a ride a few miles down the road into Kempton, population 235. Most towns that sit miles from the nearest highway and surrounded by corn and soybean fields have little more than a couple of houses and a grain elevator. But somehow Kempton has a bar, a bookstore, a post office, a bank, a couple of houses, a grain elevator, and most impressive of all a payphone that still works. As we stand over our bikes in the shade of the bookstore a guy in a white pickup rolls to a stop in front of us with this window down. His name is Dave. He's lived in this town for each of the fifty-two years of his life and it sounds like he'll be here for however many years he's got left. We're in the middle of answering his questions about our trip when a bearded guy on a gas-powered Razor scooter with a little seat on the back of it putters around the corner and stops between us and the truck.

"Dave, you seen a John Deere come by here any time recently?"

This is not a question we'll ever hear in Portland or Los Angeles.

"Nah," Dave tells him, "I haven't seen nothin'."

"Ah, ya know what? I hear it now," the scooter pilot says. "I can hear him mowin' over there. I get it. That's cool. Just wish he woulda asked me about usin' the thing first."

The guy on the scooter is named Johann. He's forty-something and has also been in Kempton for most of his life. When he asks where we're staying tonight, we tell him we were thinking about stopping right here, although we don't know where we'd stay. As soon as we mention this the guys turn to each other and try to figure out a good place for us to stash ourselves.

"Why don't ya take 'em down to the WEX house?" Dave asks after a minute or two of debate.

"Yeah, that's kinda what I was thinkin'," Johann says.

And so we say goodbye to Dave and head off behind Johann and his scooter. We pedal through the quiet streets of Kempton toward some kind of house with some kind of bed in it. At this point in the trip we've stopped caring about asking too many questions in these situations. We're content to just wait and see what falls our way.

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Aside from a few splashes of color up near the roof line, the house Johann stops in front of looks like any of the other modest but well-kept houses in Kempton. But as we step in through the back door we realize there's nothing normal about the inside of the place we're about to stay. The strong smell of incense surrounds us as soon as we walk inside. It's dark with the blinds all drawn, so even in the brightness of the afternoon the light inside is dim and unchanging. A suit of armor stands in the entryway to the front door, flanked by a stained glass window, a small severed head (not real) with an arrowhead stuck in it, and an inflatable Budweiser life preserver. A small sign posted next to the front door reads World Explorer's Club. That's what they meant by the WEX house.

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A pool table sits at the center of the room beyond. On the walls around it hang the head of a stuffed jackalope, clam shells, a red and blue warning sign from Cambodia that reads "Danger!! Mines!!", and a less dire warning sign that says "Danger: Mothership Parking Only." There are masks from the South Pacific, blankets from South America, and a neon Bud Light On Tap sign lifted from somewhere in South Bend, Indiana. A side room has a four-seat bar packed in among a ten-foot-tall bookshelf, a ten-foot-tall hypsometric-tinted map of Europe, and walls covered in bumper stickers and license plates and old signs and posters. Johann switches on the Lethal Weapon 3-themed pinball game and its cheesy electronic music echoes all throughout the house.

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The guest rooms all have different themes: the Egyptians, the ancient civilizations of Central and South America, Outer Space, Polynesia and the South Pacific. The one where we're staying has all kinds of books and photos and posters about the lost city of Atlantis. The house is this strange mix of the supernatural, the bizarre, the unexplained, and the sort of kitschy stuff you'd bring home with you if you spent a year backpacking around the world with a bunch of half-drunk twenty-year-old dudes. It's weird and funny and beyond anything we could have expected to find when we rolled into town half an hour earlier. There's no place in America quite like it, and tonight it's our home.

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Sometimes I show up in towns like this with a sense of what might be waiting for me. Maybe I've read about it in someone's journal or somewhere else online. But even though we're on the Northern Tier and I'm sure other cycle-tourists have stayed here, until the moment we walked in the door I had no idea this place existed. This means that the feelings of amazement and happiness to have ended up here wash over me in a way that makes it seem like I'm twenty-five years younger than I am.

"I was just hoping to find some ice cream in this town," Kristen says. "This is unbelievable."

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Later in the evening we walk to Tom's Tavern & Restaurant, which is the start and the end of food in Kempton. It's a place where the only thing you can get on Sunday is pizza, and where cans of Budweiser go for two bucks. On the way we pass by the bookstore. It's run by the same guy who owns the weird-ass house we're staying in tonight, and it's not a normal bookstore. It may in fact be the farthest thing from a normal bookstore. The titles on display in the window aren't from McCarthy or Murakami but unknown authors who without irony have created books like "Hitler's Flying Saucers," "The Lost Continent of Mu," "The Enigma of Cranial Deformation," "Yetis, Sasquatch & Hairy Giants," and "The Illustrated Doom Survival Guide (subtitle: Don't Panic)." I'm not sure you can find stuff like that anywhere in Seattle, and yet here it is on display in tiny Kempton, Illinois. Out of equal parts surprise and delight we turn to each other and break out in laughter. It's the only proper response.

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"It smells like the Midwest," Kristen says to me unprompted on our way back to the WEX house. "It feels like the Midwest."

"Is that good?"

"It's childhood. It's home. Yeah, it's really good."

So is most everything in our lives right now. We're having so much fun out here on the road. The one asterisk remains whatever's causing all that ruckus inside of Walter, but now we've got a plan for taking care of that, too.

Today's ride: 45 miles (72 km)
Total: 1,785 miles (2,873 km)

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