I’m cleaning Countri Bike’s chain in the parking lot of Motel 6 in Mount Vernon, Illinois. A hotel worker grinning with all golden teeth says it looks like a nice, fast bike.
On the contrary I tell him, explaining the bike’s weight and origin.
“Oh well then maybe time to put the motor on it.”
Sure is. A motor would get me to St. Louis faster by breezing through what promises to be two dull days. The checkout clerks are in disbelief at my biking to St. Louis.
“It’s gonna take you two days to drive one hour!?”
Yes, that’s how it goes when you’re on a bicycle. Now that crossing the Mississippi is within reach, I feel motivated to keep going despite two days of riding through flat fields and tiny towns.
Ashley and Glen
In Ashley (pop. 550), I pull over to eat a bag of chips in the city park. A white pickup truck rolls through the parking lot. It doubles back, jumps the curb and drives straight for me sitting at a picnic table. Had this been after Tulsa I would have run into the woods for cover.
“Hey, where ya headed for?” asks the man with glasses, a hearing aid and trucker hat.
“Okawville today and St. Louis tomorrow,” I reply.
“Are you on some kind of vacation?”
“Well, sort of. I’m biking across the country.”
Glen grew up on a farm near here and then enlisted in the Air Force where he spent 30 years. He fondly recalls living around the world, including Iran before “it went belly up.”
“When I was here, I couldn’t wait to get off the farm, and then after my service I couldn’t wait to get back to the farm.”
Glen is driving to his son’s house and bringing fresh produce from his farm. He offers a red bell pepper so perfect and plump it could be a sculpture. I politely decline. Then he suggests a “toe-matah,” which is small and mottled so I don’t feel bad taking it. On the passenger seat I spy cucumbers. They look refreshing and I want one, but can’t bring myself to ask. Glen hands me two “toematahs fresh off the farm, not sprayed with anything.”
Ashley back in the day
Glenn talks about the history of Ashley, which was a terminus of the underground railroad. At night, slaves would walk along the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad, known as the Main Line of Mid-America, that went from New Orleans to Chicago. Once slaves got here, federal troops would put them in camps of white tents and help disperse them onward.
Glen remembers a time when booming Ashley had 7 or 8 places to eat and 3 or 4 motels. Now there’s only one of each left, and my sitting in the park with a Citi Bike is about as exciting as it gets after I-64 bypassed Ashley.
The other Nashville
I later pass through Nashville, seat of Washington County. The pretty courthouse in the public square is getting a major renovation. One U.S. Supreme Court Justice and three Illinois Supreme Court Justices were born here, but that’s about it for this town of 3,000 people. No restaurants are open, so I resign to eat M&M's on the patio of a closed cafe.
The biggest regret of my trip thus far happens in Okawville. I check into a Super 8 on the edge of town by the interstate only to then realize there is an historic hotel in the town center for $59, the same price I’m paying for a characterless chain.
The on-site restaurant and wrap-around porch of the Original Springs Mineral Spa & Hotel Okawville, built in 1893, would have made a great writer’s retreat for the night and saved me from a Subway sandwich dinner.
Live and learn. Even in a town as un-happening as Okawville there can always be a long-standing local alternative.