Days 37-41: Southern Illinois, Food Poisoning, and Crossing the Mississippi
8/29 Day 37: Eddyville, IL to Cobden, IL 50 miles (1617 miles)
|Here's Charlie, he's excited to |
debut on the blog!
Our day off was fairly uneventful, but a nice relief after a week of riding. We also managed to run in to our first fellow long distance cyclist, Charlie Shoemaker. Charlie is from Georgia, isn't too long out of college, and is riding from Albany, GA to San Jose, CA. He's been on the road since Aug. 12, I believe, and had covered about 800 miles or so by the time we met up with him. When we were getting dinner at the Shawnee Restaurant and Lounge in Eddyville, the only restaurant and the only bar in town, Charlie rode up and we were instantly curious. The campground owners, a welcoming couple who live on site with their children, had told Charlie where to find us and figured we would hit it off, being on the same route and around the same age. We pretty much adopted him straight away, inviting him to ride along with us to Carbondale, where he was heading anyway to pick up a part for his bike. We finished our dinner and told him to meet us at our campsite for some beers around the fire when he got back.
We got up early the next day to beat the heat, made some coffee, went up to wake Charlie at his site, and made ham and eggs for breakfast. Well fueled, and now five, we set out from Eddysville in a full on convoy. Four fully loaded bikes is a lot, but five sort of crosses a line into mob status. At points we simply held the road completely and let traffic work its way around us. The riding was fantastic, easily some of the nicest we've had all trip. There were a few steep climbs- enough to keep things interesting- but mostly the roads were gentle rollers of varying heights through farms, woods, and meadows. The riding was fast and it hardly took us any time at all to cover 30 miles and arrive in Goreville around 11 for lunch. The first 20 or 30 miles always seem to disappear so quickly now, I barely can register them. It's getting harder and harder to keep the days of the week straight, or the date, much less what happened last week or yesterday. This thing I've come to call Biker's Amnesia seems to take hold intermittently. When everything is new, from names of towns to restaurants and people, the thing you just saw can be pushed out of your head nearly immediately. It also works with the riding itself. You can be swearing and spitting at a hill or section of road, but once you get to the top it never fails for me or someone else to say, "Well, that wasn't so bad." "Yeah, that was a good little climb."
Lunch in Goreville was something of a heavy meal for us, and we all felt as though we were basically taking another day off, but still covering 50 miles. Our destination was the house of my aunt's fiance's daughter, Mandy Margraff, and her family. So, that would make her my step-cousin to be, her husband, Josh, my step-cousin-in-law to be, and her two sons, Mac and Ben, my step-2nd-cousins to be. For brevity's sake, I will just call Mandy my cousin. Mandy is a teacher, so when we rolled up to her house at 3 PM after a very fast day of riding, we beat her home by nearly an hour, and she told me via phone that we could all make ourselves at home. Despite the fact that we have never met, Mandy and her family were amazingly welcoming. She was unfazed by our extra guest for dinner and we somehow managed to do a lot of talking and getting to know each other despite her 2 year old and 10 month old boys demanding her attention, her preparing dinner for 9, and going about her nightly routine. We were well fed, had a nice long evening of relaxing in the Margraff's living room, and, after staying up late chatting with Josh and Mandy, a good night's rest.
Easily one of the best parts of the trip for me so far has been connecting with family and, in this case, as-good-as-family as we move across the nation. Staying with Josh and Mandy was wonderful, and I felt really comfortable in their house even though our connection to one another is fairly tenuous. Their 2 year old, Ben, spent most of the evening sitting right at my side on the couch as we watched a movie together. Spending time with my Uncle Tom in Bristol, PA and my cousin Jaime was another treat earlier in the trip, and even the increased contact I've had with my immediate family and close friends through the blog and social media has been really refreshing. I feel like work and daily routine really made me so short-sighted about everyone and everything around me- made it difficult to see anything beyond short-term obligations- and, hopefully, I can take this trip as a lesson about (to sound very corny) where the true value of family and friends really lays. To feel the tangible connection with loved ones, and some total strangers, as they unquestioningly feed and shelter us, is like a revelation. I'm no fool, though, and I realize that if I was riding my bike around the town I lived in and asked a stranger to put me up for the night, they'd likely scoff at the request. The trip itself has a mystique to it, and lends an aura of larger-than-life to us at certain points. I think the trip makes us symbolic for people. We become ideas and characters beyond our daily life personas of just a short month or so ago. To help us, to be charitable toward us, lets people take part in the adventure, and it makes me feel as though our journey is beyond merely our efforts, but is a collection of the small kindnesses we've received on the way. In short, thanks to everyone who's given advice, food or shelter to us, we really appreciate it.
8/30 Day 38: Cobden, IL to Chester, IL 71 miles (1688 miles)
By the time we were up and moving around in the morning, Mandy was just putting the kids in the car to head to work by way of daycare and Josh had long left for work. I hugged Mandy goodbye, we had a big bowl of oatmeal each in the kitchen, and got riding a little after 8. Carbondale, one of the larger cities in Southern Illinois, was described to me by my cousin Scott as a center for outdoor activities in the many surrounding state parks and lakes. The town itself, which was about 20 miles or so from Cobden, was kind of a disappointment for us. We got to The Bike Surgeon, a bike shop in Carbondale, at 9:58, about 2 minutes before they opened. We were excited to be running on such good time, and about all we hoped to accomplish in town. I had hoped to have all my bike's issues sorted out, we planned to pick up our mail in town, and we all wanted to run a myriad of other various errands. Unfortunately, The Bike Surgeon's owner, Trisha, proved to be a relatively terse, cool woman who seemed none-too-concerned that despite the fact my contact at Surly Bikes told me my part was confirmed to have been delivered to their old address, one door down, no one knew where it was at all. Neither the bike shop, the tattoo shop (their neighbor), nor UPS now had any idea where the part I needed had gone. Further, they had scant idea what the true function of the part was that fell out of my shifter, and charged me $2.50 apiece for the tiny crank bolts I needed. This put a damper on my day immediately and I was very unimpressed with them.
Ben, on the other hand, finally got the upgrade he's been wanting on his gearing and the rest of the gang picked up some odds and ends at the other bike shops in town, since we decided to deny the Bike Surgeon any more of our time or money if we could avoid it. We bounced around a big strip mall two miles down the road, picked up our mail (Thanks from Ben to his family, Mandi to her Mom, Erin and I to her Dad, and all of us to Mandi's Mom's friend Linda for the care packages and goodies), copied some maps Charlie had of an alternate route we might take, and ate lunch. Our impression of the town, as I said, was not positive generally, and I realize that it's not fair to judge a place by one snooty lady and a hectic, traffic laden strip mall... but we have.
We checked out what lay ahead of us for the day and saw that after Murphysboro, about 15 miles away, there was very little in the way of places to stay for the night for the next 50 miles. I called a place in Chester, IL, a small town on the Mississippi River, and found out that they have free lodging for cyclists at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge (they call it an Aerie, which I think is pretty funny). They have a small shack set up there with 9 bunks, A/C, wireless internet, showers, and the club's bar and restaurant is right next door. It sounded great, but was about 48.5 miles away. We've done 70 mile days before, but we'd lingered in Carbondale for nearly 5 hours, and to cover 50 miles before dark might be a stretch. Luckily, the ACA maps showed an alternate route to Chester that, although it was the same distance as the main route, took us down into the Mississippi's flood plain. This meant it would be very flat, and hopefully, fast. We parted ways with Charlie, who still had to wait at least another day for his parts to arrive in town, with promises to meet back up soon. I'm sure we'll see him again soon, since we share a path all the way to Pueblo, CO. Once we left Charlie, we dashed off to beat nightfall.
|Lily pads in the flood plains|
by the Mississipi.
The riding down in the flood plain was great, and we even had a helpful tail wind pushing us up to speeds as fast as 20mph according to Ben's bike computer. The scenery was unlike any I've ever seen before, a strange juxtaposition of farmland and marshes, framed with high hills in the backdrop that form the edges of the river valley. The houses down there looked like mostly ramshackle affairs, and the absence of too many of them have me convinced life down there might be risky business with the mighty Mississippi threatening your home and livelihood whenever the rain falls heavily. We zoomed along, barely stopping for a bathroom break or a snack. Our group saw the Mississippi for the first time ever with our own eyes as we rode upon the levees that guard the farmland, and simultaneously gave us a commanding view of the fields that stretched out to our east toward Murphysboro. The river itself isn't at its widest here, as far as I know, but it still is visibly larger and faster than the Ohio or Delaware Rivers before it.
After snapping a few photos of the river in the lovely failing light, we rushed off again. By the time we made town, it was fully dark, we were all tired- and hungry- and very ready for a shower. The Eagles' Lodge was in the throes of dinner rush when Erin and I arrived, at least 20 minutes behind Ben and Mandi. The woman running the place, Donna, was very obliging and directed us down to the shack where the rest of our party was lounging out front with two other travellers. Our fellow lodgers were Tom, a 70 year old cyclist travelling to D.C. from Oregon for the Peace Corps' 50th Anniversary, and Nigel, a very chatty and engaging Aussie in his mid-50s making his way down the length of the Mississippi from its origins in Canada down to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. When we'd rolled down the short hill to the shack, we found the motley crew of cyclists in intermittent conversation and our group got their things together, delayed our shower, and made our way back up to the Lodge for dinner. Ben and Mandi had needed some food after our dash to Chester and had stopped for a sandwich at Subway, but Erin and I were starving.
We didn't know it when we arrived, but the special for the night was fried chicken and a whole chicken was running $6.50 that night. That combined with dollar draughts had me pretty much sold. As a table we ordered two whole chickens, and I must have eaten 2/3 of one. It was one of the best meals I've ever had. After dinner we got entangled in a rolling chat with Nigel in the bunkhouse that changed participants as single members of the crew would slip off to take a shower while the others gabbed with the garrulous Australian. Nigel left his wife behind in Australia to go on his bike travels that will take him through Central America, where he will teach Spanish in Nicaragua for 6 months, and eventually into South America. He'd planned originally to be gone for a month, then two, then more and now he thinks he won't be back til the end of next year where he'll regroup a bit and decide whether he wants to just keep riding or not. If you want to follow Nigel's blog, check out www.browsinaboutonabike.com. We talked the night away with him and didn't get to sleep til nearly midnight.
8/31 Day 39: Forced Day Off in Chester
|Nigel packs up his things outside the Eagles' Lodge.|
Erin, Mandi, and I woke up today feeling just fine, but unfortunately Ben was not. He'd been vomiting since early morning and was in no shape to ride. We made sure he was alright for a bit and went of to get some breakfast with Nigel at a diner in town. We talked and made conversation until nearly noon when we finally parted ways. Good luck, Nigel, on your many travels that remain for you, and here's hoping you land on your feet. Right after breakfast, Mandi began to feel ill and it wasn't long before she, too, was horizontal in the bunkhouse and feeling poorly. Erin and I bought some Pepto-Bismol, crackers, and ginger ale for the two sick cases and resolved to hold down the bar at the Eagles' Club for most of the day. I wrote the blog and she wrote some post-cards while we intermittently shot the breeze with the barstaff, each other, and watched daytime T.V. After we ate dinner, we were surprised and happy to see our friend Charlie walk in to the bar. He had gotten his parts in Carbondale, but decided he would wait until his parents- who will be visiting him in the Ozarks over Labor Day- arrived with the tools he would need to do the work on the bike himself.
Unfortunately, just after Charlie arrived and dinner had a chance to settle a bit, Erin began to feel pukey, too. We had originally thought it a by-product of food poisoning from Ben and Mandi's Subway sandwich the night before, but Erin being sick ruled that out. Charlie and I decided our best recourse would be to stay out of the hut where all the invalids were convalescing and sit out front at the picnic table drinking whiskey- to kill any possible bacteria or viruses in our systems. We passed the time talking about all manner of things, until it was time for us both to retire with hopes we could get across the Mississippi the next day.
9/1 Day 40: Chester, IL to Our Place Convenience Store, Ozora, MO 13 miles (1701 miles)
Today everyone seemed much improved, except for Charlie. Charlie was up half the night with a rough case of diarrhea, presumably a by-product of the malady affecting our group. We resolved that since the day was forecast to be over 100 degrees (as the day before also was), that we would take the first part of the day to get everyone's strength back up. We had a light breakfast at Hardee's down the street, which everyone but me consumed gingerly and with little enthusiasm. After a few hours of lounging in the air-conditioned cyclist shack, the sick crew all decided to test their stomach out on a grilled cheese at the lodge. Erin and I gave them a head start, since we'd eaten a little more than the others that morning. I could tell that we weren't at all back to full strength when- after Erin and I rejoined the group in the restaurant- I had cleaned my plate a few minutes before anybody else finished, despite the 20 minute lead they'd had. We topped off the recuperative part of the day with a short nap, and had everything packed and ready to go around 4PM.
|My bike with the Mississippi River and bridge crossed|
in the background.
No one, including me, was really very enthusiastic about making it the 50-ish miles to Farmington where we intended to camp that night. The heat was oppressive, even by the time we'd gotten done seeing all the sights Chester had to offer on our way out of town. I've left out thus far that Chester, IL is the former home of E.C. Segar, the creator of Popeye the Sailor, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and the rest of the crew. The town is very proud of this, and features the squinting spinach muncher on all their town signs, banner, and even the town's police uniforms and fire trucks. There are also 6 or 7 statues of the Popeye cast around town, with 14 total in the works. We also were, quite regrettably, a couple weeks early for the annual Popeye Picnic held in the fictitious sea-farer's (river-farer, I'd guess is more likely) honor. So, after taking our pictures with Popeye, the Illinois State sign, the Missouri State sign, and saying our goodbyes again to Charlie, who'd resolved to stay, recover, and beat the heat, we set out in earnest.
|Erin poses with Popeye just|
before leaving his hometown.
We had made it about 13 miles when we stopped at Our Place Convenience Store on Rt. 61 for a quick break. We had, by this time, basically nixed making it to Farmington and set our sights on a motel in Ozora about 8 miles away. While we snacked (basically, while I snacked) and looked at the maps, the store owner came out to chat with us. He was a round fellow with a mostly grey mustache, and he told us that if we wanted to just put tents up behind his store for the night, we were more than welcome. Mandi, Ben, and Erin were still feeling some serious stomach upset and didn't even have the appetite necessary to get enough food down to be close to in riding shape; so we took Tom up on his offer. Even without the fatigue of the group as a factor, our logic told us that free is better than a $75 room and 8 miles is not worth straining for. The sick ones ate a few small morsels of what they felt able to consume without grimacing while I mowed through granola bars and a big 32 oz beer (only $2!) while we set up camp behind the store. The weather called for two more extremely hot days before the heat wave broke, so we went to bed at about 8PM to get plenty of rest for an early rise.
9/2 Day 41: Ozora, MO to St. Joe's State Park, Park Fields, MO 44 miles (1745 miles)
The night was hot and humid, and none of us woke feeling very clean; sticky sweat, and the coyotes had kept me up on and off through the night. When we woke, the sun had not yet fully risen and we knew that the clock was ticking on our hours of comfortable riding. Everyone was feeling better still than yesterday, but still didn't have much appetite. We ate a quick breakfast of danishes, cookies, and granola bars, refilled our bottles with ice water from the store's soda fountain, and were off around 7:20. We knew we had a tough day (and days to come) of climbing in front of us, since basically as soon as we entered Missouri, we'd entered the Ozarks. The Ozarks are a small mountain range that used to be an ocean floor and they cover most of the state of Missouri. This leg of the trip, while supposedly extremely challenging for eastbound cyclists, should be a bit of a trial for us, but it's generally agreed that the Appalachians are worse and I'm positive we won't have too bad a go of it if we can get everyone back to 100%.
We began the day with only a little more enthusiasm than we began our ride the day before. We covered ground quickly, but still the morning seemed to drag. The heat intensified slowly and at around 11, we were cooking at the magical 100 degree mark with heat index of something higher. We passed a tiger preserve called Crown Ridge, but it was closed. There was a restaurant attached, as well- closed. We slogged on, up and down the Ozarks in the building heat until we arrived in Farmington for lunch. By that time everyone was hot, hungry, and crabby. Mandi and Erin had felt weak all morning, but by now were starving. We wound our way through the city and slowly found our way to a Wal-Mart where we bought a bunch of fresh sandwich fixings, moved to an abandoned gas station across the parking lot for shade, and devoured as much as each of our stomachs could hold. After lunch, we moved into a nearby KFC to enjoy some ice water and bask in their air conditioning. The heat and lingering weakness in the group made our decision to only go a handful of miles further a pretty easy.
|A picture of where the lake used to be, and what is|
now a gear-head playground. Just remember to
wash that lead dust off before eating.
The ACA route led us right through St. Joe's State Park, about 6 miles from town, where we ended up getting a camp site for the night. The park, it turned out, was the site of an old lead mine founded in the 1700s. From what I gather, there was once a big lake near the mine, but most of it was filled in with fine, dusty tailings from the mine. There are still 4 smaller lakes in the park with sand beaches, but the main attraction is the huge filled in lake where there are now acres upon acres of dusty riding trails for horses and off-road vehicles. The overall picture is kind of a sad one, on reflection. We basically ruined a huge wilderness area by mining and logging it into oblivion and turned it into a state park where people can burn tons of gas riding their ATVs and dirt bikes around in questionably healthy lead dust. Either way, I suppose, the camping is relatively cheap and the swimming hole was pretty nice. We were definitely some odd ducks when we rolled in to our campsite without a huge red pick-up truck (they give these away to Missouri residents when they buy a home), a trailer hauling 6 or more ATVs, or dirt bikes that have blaringly loud, 2-stroke engines. An hour or so after the engines- but not the children- stopped screaming, we drifted off to sleep.