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Traveling Will & Robin

Current travels: Three months in the wilderness of Siberia, Mongolia, and the South Pacific

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Tue
31
Aug '10

Come On and Feel the Illinoise

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State #8

Having exhausted all the cultural and gastronomic delights that St. Louis has to offer (or, at the very least, spent 48 hours in one place), I decided it was time to press on and head towards the rising sun. Far from the wearying funk that came from the record-toeing heat wave and the rolling spikes of the Ozarks, I left the city refreshed and reinvigorated about seeing my nation. Part of this invigoration flowed naturally from the feelings of exploration and accomplishment at crossing that great river, the Mississippi. Since reaching the continental divide at the peak of the Rocky Mountains I’d kept the river in the back of my mind as the hydrological 2/3 point of my journey. Like all the rivers around me I’d descended to this point, and would now have to fight gravity to the top of Appalachia. From there, the sea.

One complication with heading leaving St. Louis is that all direct routes onward go through the decaying municipal carcass of East St. Louis. I’d driven through East Saint once a decade ago, months after the end of a two-year garbage strike and under orders from the the city’s chief of police not to remain stopped at red lights after dark; all around I saw the crumbling faces of the tens of thousands of buildings being condemned faster than they could be torn down. This is a city with murder and assault rates nearly 20 times the national average, and one which doesn’t inspire feelings of safety in the heart of someone traveling along and on two wheel. I reasoned, however, that while crime doesn’t wait for breakfast, it does, statistically, wake up later, so I entered this gateway to Illinois at 8:00 am on a Sunday and didn’t stop pedaling until I was once again surrounded by trees and silence.

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3000 miles in Illinois!

I was surprised at the quiet joy I felt at my surroundings. The trees and hills of southern Illinois aren’t easily distinguishable from those of eastern Missouri, but the land itself felt more familiar to me. Sufjan Stephens remarked that he liked the state because he considered it the “center of gravity” for the American Midwest. Of my entire journey it also is the closest both in spirit and in geography to my native Wisconsin, and for the duration of the state the depths of my id felt more at home than anywhere else I’ve traveled, even California. In two days I’d crossed the state on good old stalwart highway 50. This was the most interesting stretch yet for the highway itself: it began in 1806 as a mail route and stagecoach road and evolved was part of the Midland Trail, one of the first coast-to-coast automobile roads at the beginning of the last century. Adjacent to the modern highway I kept catching glimpses of the older 50 it replaced, at times fully intact and at others overgrown and crumbling. Beautiful old trestle bridges sat dormant, patiently standing among grass and trees as if waiting for their drivers to return after a only a few decades’ absence. These are the sights that you don’t get from a car; this is the reason to travel slow.

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Old highway 50

Finally I crossed the Abraham Lincoln Bridge into Vincennes, IN, and within the hour had been picked up (literally) by my charitable new host, Gary. Certainly one of the best parts of my summer has been the unexpected and random graciousness of strangers, and top among these are other cyclists. Eleven years ago Gary rode the length of highway 50 across America and each summer keeps an eye out for fellow travelers passing through Vincennes. Usually he finds and hosts a few per year, but I was the first he’d seen this season. With big-hearted insistence he and his wife Kim took me out to eat the giant pasta dinner I craved, the to into their home to take care of all my washing, entertaining, and sleeping needs. I learned of his trip, solo but fully supported, when to fit his schedule he crossed the country in an astonishing 27 days, and I shared the highlights of my adventures and future plans. I departed over-burdened with gifts: well-rested, satiated, my bike filled with their Gatorade and breakfast bars, and carrying Gary’s maps of Kentucky and Virginia that will guide me to the coast. There is a fraternity among tourers that is infectious; experiences like this are what make me look eagerly forward to my next summer in San Francisco so I can pay the kindness forward with hospitality of my own.

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Kim, Gary, and the kennel

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