Over the River and Through Illinois

After a morning rainforest shower in Evansville, Indiana, I pedal off to Illinois. Crossing state lines always feels like an accomplishment, but I worry Illinois will be a disappointment after wonderful Indiana roads and drivers.

Mount Vernon doesn't leave a good last impression. The area is rundown, but I must refuel here because there are no services until my destination in Carmi, Illinois where a local cyclist will host me.

I’m sipping a chocolate shake outside Dairy Queen when an older man gets out of his pickup. He’s about to head inside, but sees me and stops to give unsolicited advice about how I don’t want ride a bike around here, how in Illinois semis go 80 mph and there’s no shoulder, and how I’m going to pass a graveyard leaving town and hope I don’t end up resting there forever more.

Gee, thanks. His tone is friendly and his comments are meant to be constructive. To show his support of bicycles, he says he liked to ride one as a kid. But he would never ride to Illinois. Not on these roads. Not across that bridge. What’s up with that bridge? My host in Illinois phoned me in advance cautioning me about it.

A third warning
The guys at Dan’s Comp in Mount Vernon echo this concern. I had stopped in before my shake to add air to my tires. Both register 70 psi, the max recommended. That’s amazing because the last time I had these Schwalbe Marathon Pluses checked was in Columbus.

I don’t know how much Josh the CoGo mechanic filled them, but they’re holding up remarkably well. (Update 11/4 Amarillo, TX: not so well. Front tire on the verge of splitting apart, must be replaced.)

The guys at this bike shop are curious about my journey and help figure out the best route to Carmi. We load Google Earth for a preview. It’s not looking good. First I have to survive the narrow Wabash River Bridge. Then in Illinois, Route 7 north towards Carmi is paved but there is no shoulder. Coal mining trucks travel that road regularly, and even though it’s Saturday, harvest vehicles will be out, too. Side roads that parallel 7 and divide fields are likely to be dirt or gravel.

Entering the Land of Lincoln
There is only one way west: Indiana 62 into Illinois. Leaving Mount Vernon, the shoulder narrows and the landscape goes bare. I feel vehicles speeding through just to get somewhere else. This is no man’s land, the kind of place where a cyclist could be struck and nobody would stop.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a shoulder. There is also truck traffic, yet drivers are respectful and give me plenty of room to operate in the margins of this two lane road.

Signs in the opposite lane welcome motorists to Indiana. I must be close. Around the bend looms a powder blue bridge. THE BRIDGE! I gasp. I pull over against a guardrail to plot a strategy and time my advance. With no westbound traffic visible, I make my move into Illinois. I pedal hard and game show chant “no semis, no semis” in hopes of warding them off.

Coming into view behind me… a semi.

I can’t outpace it, so I get off the bike and flatten myself against the side of the bridge. The driver flashes his lights. I look into them, raising my hand in a weak salute to the king of the road. I am a pawn out here. I tilt my head to the sky, inhale and shut my eyes. The blowback shakes me, but it’s just one truck. I’ve struggled on bridges far worse in New Jersey.

Now it’s time for my reward: a state welcome photo op! The sign is on a steep slope, so setting up a selfie with the bike is difficult. Just then a minivan pulls over and two girls from the University of Indianapolis hop out.

“Hiiiii, are you Jeff?” Kate says.

What is this, my welcoming committee? She’s with her friend Misty and they read about me somewhere. This is the second roadside encounter in as many days.

Towards Carmi
After a group photo, Kate and Misty drive off to go camping with friends for the weekend. I gamble and turn onto a paved country road hoping it will lead to more paved roads so I can avoid coal mine trucks on Route 7.

These minor roads trace the edges of rectangular fields. It’s like pedaling across a piece of graph paper and about as exciting as algebra. This is my first taste of “flyover country.”

I can see for miles. The vastness of the landscape is overpowering. I feel like a pencil point on an infinite grid. Yet I also feel I’ve reached the heart of the nation where hardworking men grow stuff that we can eat. Where the real America lives. Where life revolves around farms, faith and family.

It’s harvest season. Big equipment demolishes cornfields creating a cloud of dust and leaving behind no prisoners, only broken ears with shattered kernels. Countri Bike looks like a Lego piece next to John Deere combines and harvesters with tires the size of houses and drill bits that could blast through medieval city walls. I continue to Carmi in awe of where I am and how I got here—on a shared bike from the most densely populated city in the country.

The name Carmi (pronounced car-my) has something to do with Mt. Carmel and Elijah. Local industries are oil, gas and farming—all of which I’ve observed riding through fields dotted with oil wells, their gas flares flickering like wild lanterns. The landscape is eerie yet fantastic.

Meeting Travis
My host calls and wants to ride out and meet me. But where? These roads are numbered into the thousands, a pattern that will become standard but for now is unreasonably exciting. I tell Travis my route towards Carmi: Co Rd 1100 N to Co Rd 1175 E (also labeled 23). He has no idea what I’m talking about because local names like Miller Farm Road and Dead Pheasant Run are not recognized by Google Maps.

Travis and I find each other on one of these high numbered roads. He’s genuinely excited to meet me. Not only am I on a shared bike from the Big Apple, but also I’m the first cyclist he’s hosted in the Warm Showers network.

In his mid 40s, Travis is a chiropractor with a robust local business. He’s a wheeler and dealer in the local real estate market and dreams of investing in property in NYC, which he’s visited and loved. (I gift him the full version of my app.)

He’s single, and for companionship recently adopted Old Smokey, a docile dog that craves only the human touch. He hardly eats food, he just wants to be loved. Smokester, as I call him, feels like a threadbare bathmat, but that doesn’t stop me from hugging him tight every chance I get. I could use a dog like this on my journey.

The first sign of Travis’ hospitality is that he takes the couch. My room looks like a guest room, so why is he going to sleep on the couch? When I realize I’m in his room, I protest and try to take the couch. Travis won’t allow it.

Pizza and guns
Dinner is Di Maggio's Pizza, which is a home run for here and a triple if it were in the Bronx. The owner is Neapolitan and cycles 50 miles a day. Travis introduces me as a cross-country biker and a quick connection is made with the pizzaiolo asking me about my route and how I’m fixing a shared bike along the way.

“I don’t have any tools, but do you have any tips for riding through East St. Louis?” I ask, wondering how I’m going to make it through one of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

“Go in the morning. They’ll still be sleeping,” he says with a sly smile. “Also, get some tools.”

Next to the pizza place is a gun store. Maybe this is the tool I need to get into St. Louis? Travis asks if I own any guns as we walk to the car.

“Are you crazy?” I laugh. “I’m from New York City. We don’t carry guns, what about you?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve got about 10 or 12. All over the house, but I took the one in your room out in case you found it. I didn’t want you to get scared.”

“10 or 12! What the heck do you need all those for?”

“Squirrel shooting, rabbit shooting, self defense that kind of stuff.”

He's from rural Illinois and I’m from the big city, but we poke fun at our backgrounds. I never talk about politics, but can’t resist one jab.

“You know, Travis, I think Bernie Sanders would be great for America.”

The seat belt catches me as the car lurches forward with acceleration. We both laugh hard.

Festival night
The night is young. Travis is thinking movie, but the nearest theater is an hour away. Not a big deal in his book, but a deal breaker for me. I’m tired. I see Dairy Queen down the road and want a pumpkin blizzard. I accept this as our last stop, but Travis is up for more.

Norris City (pop. 1,100) is having its annual fair, so we drive over to check out the action. Bored teenagers stomp around aimlessly while younger children enjoy one last carnival ride before closing. Old folks doze in lawn chairs facing a stage with live music.

Travis sees familiar faces. The father is wearing a St. Louis Cardinals shirt and is going to the game tomorrow, the final home game of the regular season. I had hoped to be in St. Louis for it, but am still three days (3 days!) away by shared bicycle (or 2 hours by car).

Before I can joke about getting a ride, I’m offered one. Dreams are quickly dashed: Countri Bike has zero chance of fitting in a sedan, much less with two children in the back seat.

Travis and I return to Carmi where Old Smokey is waiting. He’s confused as to where he should sleep: in his doggie bed in my room or with his master on the living room couch. Old Smokey sprawls out on the floor next to the couch and it’s lights out for everyone.

Tomorrow I’m off to Mount Vernon again, but this time in Illinois.