World by Bike: The Mid-West - Back on the Bike

Illipolis, IL - Springfield, MO
24th - 28th October 2018

Hitting the switch in the garage, the lights flickered on, giving life to the cold morning and waking my bike from its slumber.  It'd had been two weeks since I'd arrived late into the night in Illiopolis, Illinois and it was time to get riding again. The morning was fresh and the -1°C temperatures further highlighted how far north I still was this late into October. I waved my lovely host couple off to work and watched their car speed off westward towards the horizon as I turned south and our paths diverged as quickly as they had intersected just a couple of weeks previously.

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My almost romantic ride alongside the sunrise into the crisp Autumn (not Fall) air was rudely interrupted by a dog who decided to tear out of his driveway and escort me to the edge of town barking and growling as I struggled to turns the gears.  Out of range of one of the outcast hounds of Baskerville, I hit the railroad and proceeded to wait a comically long time for the last truck of one of the vast trans-US cargo trains to rattle through. I pushed off the ground, clipped into my pedals and we were off again, into the corn fields of south-central Illinois. Even after my sedentary couple weeks, the bike took no time to get going again. It's nice when stuff just works. 

First puncture of the trip, RIver Wood, IL

First puncture of the trip, RIver Wood, IL

I headed south, south-west through the vast, open farmland, with just the blowing mid-western winds for company. Several hours of leaning at 20° into the wind and around 100miles later, the land started to change from pan flat agricultural land to lush, thick bushes, and trees began to appear as I dropped down towards the water of the Mississippi river. A beautiful day back on the road was only marred by the huge puncture I suffered three miles out from my rest stop for the night, where crossing an intersection I thought I was coming under gun fire. I'd run over a 5 inch nail and completely ruptured my rear tyre. Frustrated, but more confused as to how I'd not seen the hazardous instrument, I found my spare tyre and set about repairs in a supermarket car park as night fell. The quick descent of darkness reminded me again how far north I was this late into the year, with it now getting dark around 6pm. I'm running a tubeless set-up on my bike so repairs took a little longer, with the tyres particularly hard to get on and off the rim. However, one puncture in 2800miles isn't bad going.

 

The next morning was where I lost a lot of time. Despite the warning the night before about how early it was getting dark, I dawdled leaving my warm and comfortable accommodation, where my hosts had given me the entire upstairs to their house, an annexed area they used to rent out. A late start, then riding some gravel trails made for a slow morning, and my body was aching for more food from the very first pedal stroke. My whole system was getting back in the swing of riding again, and the increased intake of calories required. After a painfully slow 20miles I'd made it to the foot of McKinley bridge which take me out of Illinois and into St. Louis, Missouri.

Lewis, Clark and their dog Seaman alongside the Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri

Lewis, Clark and their dog Seaman alongside the Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri

Missouri was immediately a change, following the river bank to the west of the Mississippi through old, abandoned mills and factories, until I reached the Lewis and Clark monument, and the huge 600ft archway, dubbed the 'Gateway to Westward Expansion'. The city of St. Louis marked the starting point of Captain Lewis and Second Lieutenant Clark's journey to map out and discover an easily navigable path to the west back in 1804, after the United States bought the Louisiana territory from the French under the terms of the Louisiana purchase. The US paid $15mil at the time, which works out to less than three cents an acre, and in today's money, works out to be around $550bn, around the same as Facebook is worth.  At the time the United States only went as far west as the Mississippi, but after acquiring the new land they had the entire Mississippi Valley, from the Appalachian mountains in the east to the Rockies in the West, as well as going as far south as the port of New Orleans, and as far north as parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta in present day Canada.  It's incredible to walk through this relatively recent history and you can see things change as a result of the colonisation of the Americas. As soon as you cross the Mississippi that splits the country, you see relics of a French time. The streets have French names, and you can see Cathedrals rather than just the more modern church halls that you see across many parts of America. I spent a little time looking at the historical sites before ending a short day riding to meet my host for the evening, who was out for a ride himself. I arrived about an hour before dark but had only done 45miles, my shortest day yet (if you ignore JFK to Manhattan). It was okay though, I'm not in a race and my body was asking for a rest, so I gave it one.

Hosts in Manchester, St. Louis, MO

Hosts in Manchester, St. Louis, MO

My host couple were lovely, and the poor weather the next morning encouraged me to savour the conversation and hot coffee over breakfast. After finding accommodation for the next night, and reluctantly turning down an invite to stay another night on the outskirts of St. Louis, I saddled up and got back on the bike. The flat land of Illinois had well and truly disappeared and the hills were back. A thick mist hung in the air all day but I could still make out signs to ski areas and snowmobile paths, a worrying foreshadowing of the climbs that lay ahead on another 100mile day. Route 66 paralleled the main Interstate of Highway 44, ever rising and descending all day, with very little flat ground to get into a pedalling rhythm. The grey, damp day was broken up by my first Walmart experience, where I ended up getting over-excited at the fact that doughnuts and snacks were half the price of the gas stations I had been frequenting, and bought double the snacks rather than halving my costs. I did have the vague hope that I'd bump into Ellen Degeneres in one of aisles of the maze that is a Walmart Supercenter, and she'd given me one of those giant novelty cheques that I so often see as a suggested video on my Facebook news feed, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

 

George and his son outside of Rolla, Missouri

George and his son outside of Rolla, Missouri

The distractions in Walmart and the late start meant I was in for a little night riding. Fortunately my host for the evening had offered to drive out to meet me on Route 66, saving me the trouble of finding his house, way out in the sticks and off my route. It was only upon arrival that I realised quite how far from the pick-up point he was, with his house 15 miles west of where he'd met me. I felt slightly embarrassed he'd come so far to pick me up, and slightly worried about getting back their the next day.

An evening passed discussed our relative political situations in our countries, his time in the Marines, eating fried chicken and petting his 140lb Irish Wolfhound. When the next morning came around I gratefully accepted an offer of a ride back to Route 66, which later turned into an offer to drive back to the gas station he'd picked me up at, despite it being a 30minute drive. I was, and still am very grateful. My gratitude was compounded when I realised the scale of the day I had set for myself, and how much worse it would have been had I had to cycle the 15 miles back east to the town of Rolla where he'd picked me up, then back west to Springfield, my rest stop for the night.

 

The series of late starts were adding an unnecessary level of stress to the trip, and made me realise the high level of tension that runs below the surface of an adventure like this. Don't get me wrong, I'm having a lot of fun, and I'm not pushing myself to the point that I'm drifting off to sleep whilst riding as some endurance cyclists do, but something about moving to a new place every day creates a tension. Despite how hospitable some of the people on this journey have been, you can never fully relax like you would at home, raiding cupboards for snacks, flicking on the television or lying in bed all day. The late nights revealed this tension to me, as a few days went by where I predominately listened to music whilst pedalling, and not an audiobook, podcast or just the sounds of rural America. I felt as though I didn't have the mental capacity to take on another task, even one as simple as processing the sound from an Amazon audiobook. Knowing the days were going to be long, and that I'd lost so much time before even starting each day's ride added a little extra tension, shedding light on the cumulative stresses that had built up over the past 8 weeks on the road but that I hadn't really been aware of thus far.  Knowing that no matter how hard you pedalled it was still going to take 9 hours to make it to the rest stop and that it'd be dark, or knowing that any potential host may have to change plans to accommodate my late arrival wasn't a nice feeling for me. It made me realise how careful I needed to be regarding my own awareness of how I managed myself and my own state as I ride. You can actually be running very close to breaking point without really being aware of it, caught in the moment, but where a broken chain or double puncture in the wrong bit of town could push you over the edge. I'm making a concerted effort to leave earlier now, and not arrange back-to-back crazy long days in the saddle, just for that extra bit of contingency. I don't need to add to the ever-present, daily tasks of finding food, water, accommodation and adequate roadways.

Some of the older parts of Route 66, MO

Some of the older parts of Route 66, MO

 Although I didn't have any major set-backs in the previous couple of late days, the elevated stress and fatigue meant that I was feeling tired and looking forward to a rest day. I'd done around 370miles in the past four days, so not big miles, but I was already feeling the strain after almost two weeks off the bike on the Austin trip. Obligingly, my host family that evening said they could take me for a second night. It was just as well because when I arrived late on Saturday evening, they were having a small gathering of friends, playing games and the drinks were flowing. It turned out my host ran a local brewery in town, so we enjoyed some high quality craft beer and chatted about his family's ride across the States when his children we just four and two! The nuances of the beer were probably lost on me, but I loved hearing about their journey from Florida to Oregon back in 2010. They were a really cool family, showing me around town, giving me a tour of the brewery and showing me how they produce 3 million bottles a year, and where the best spots to eat in town were. We watched the Formula 1 motor racing together and I was able to relax, hitting the reset button on my daily routine, meaning I was able to start early the next day, versus playing catch-up with time the previous few days, arriving late so starting late then arriving late - you get the idea.

 

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I realised over these few days the importance of realising your priorities in the day, and taking action on them. My priorities initially are to make sure I've got the basics covered like shelter, food and water, and not to watch episodes of the US Office when I get access to Wi-Fi, despite how funny Steve Carrell can be. I can sometimes get lazy with these things, holding on to the view that I've had some experience bike touring so everything will work out, or that I don't mind night-riding. But I know that when looking at the last few days in isolation that I wasn't proactively making myself depart for each day's ride at a reasonable time, and that I was using past experiences when things have worked out well to distort the reality of the day, not realistically giving myself enough contingency in case something happened on route. Just because something bad hadn’t happened before, doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen now. A few late evenings being chased by some dogs in the more rural spots between towns, and the close proximity to trucks on the narrow roads at night made me realise that I need to get to where I'm staying for the night, then I start to dawdle and chill out. Not that I'm being incredibly strict about sticking to a plan, it's just I'm trying to cut down on unnecessary risks, like riding at night, and making sure I prioritise the day correctly and put first things first.

 

Another realisation was that I'm getting into the more rural, 'red-neck' (as one of my hosts said) parts of the state, and country. This was evidenced by the passing of a series of small shops looking like a small settlement, with the sign above one building announcing 'Uranus Fudge Factory'. It turned out that there was one guy, dubbed 'Big Louis', who was transforming a strip club he used to own into a small town, with the hopes he'd get it recognised by the state as the town of Uranus, Missouri. His hope was that alongside the hilariously horrific name of the Uranus Fudge Factory, he'd be able to get on the exit ramp of the freeway his new town name alongside it's neighbouring village of Dixon, to read 'Dixon Uranus' whenever cars passed through on Highway 44. Big Louis has also built a giant 20ft high rooster and claims to have the 'biggest cock in Uranus'. It's good to have a dream, people!

There are some truly some interesting people around these parts as I head south.

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