Marion, In - Gilman, Il: 140 miles. Total: 774 miles
The bed is too big, fluffy, comfortable, comforting, it protects me from responsibility, from the bike. I don't want to know what the weather is like outside, should I care? I grab my phone and bury it under the pillow because I want to sleep ten more hours. Of course it doesn't happen. I am up ten minutes later and three grease biscuits and a double oatmeal fill my stomach to capacity. I roll out at 9AM, I can't believe how late it is. Am I getting sloppy? 61F call for the long sleeve jersey but I am too lazy to stop along the road and change. A flailing sun is unable to declare its strength for most of the day and I don't sweat at all. It's cloudy all the way through. The wind dries off my sweat before it dares to stick its neck out of my pores. Yes, it is back, a 16mph headwind is a tough deal. Only day 7, only Indiana, give me a break please, wait a little longer before raining on my parade, wait until Iowa at least, let me enjoy a few days riding through the Plains. My begging goes unanswered and the wind will blow for most of the day; for about 85 miles to be precise. The last 55 it turned into a crosswind before waning.
The day starts miserably, I take highway 18 out of Marion and after a few miles I make out the red/orange sign "Road Work Ahead". Doesn't bode well. The asphalt is all tore up and I have no choice but to ride on a rough surface that sends my ass bobbing on my seat and my bag on the handlebar shaking like a whistling kettle that has been neglected on a kitchen counter. 20 miles is a long stretch, will I get a puncture? Will my tires blow up? Worse: petroleum asphalt, tar, this black slimy, thick liquid just being laid by a truck driving slowly up ahead covers the entire road and I am such a dumdhead that I don't even see the truck. 20 frustrating miles of road work which take me forever to negotiate and the upshoot is that I get spattered all over my legs and the bike is just a complete pathetic mess. I realize it too late and like a child whose candy has been denied, I throw the bike against innocent corn plants and I proceed to remove the dirty mess from my legs with whatever I can get my hands on, plants and grass, spit. Nothing works, if anything it makes it worse and my hands get so dirty that I look like a mechanic who doesn't know what he is doing. A flagman comes over to see what the hell is going on and he definitely improves my mood when he says "Oh boy, that's gonna be really tough to wash off". His acumen helps me a lot. I throw a mean glance back at him and get back on the bike, at least the road construction area is behind me.
It gets stuck on you, doesn't it? When you want something so bad that you go to any length to get it, it seethes deep into your fiber. You aim and you hit, and you get the whole package, nothing is just nice or nasty or great, nothing is ever one-sided. Nothing is ever perfect. Over 700 miles, I know I want America, big time, so go ahead and take it but the wind and this grease (and probably toxic) mush comes with it. You want the open spaces of the West and the wind is part of the package. So I guess the real question is not how bad you want it but how well you can tolerate the downside of things. This is the key question. And the key question right now is how the hell am I going to wash this shit off? It looks pretty awful. Anyway, I do want America bad and if I look at the mileage covered the past 4 days and some of the obstacles that I am overcoming I know you wouldn't believe if I told you that today I thought about quitting for real. And I know from my experience last year that the real challenges are way up ahead. The real wind is not this Indiana breeze, the real road work is not a 20 mile interruption. And I am already whining like a beginner. That's promising. I should have stayed under the bed sheets this morning.
A whole day on the bike is a long affair and while I am all riled up by the indelible mess on my white skin, my mood improves greatly when I know that the Illinois sign is within a few miles. It fires me up, the wind is still blowing pretty hard but I have the whole road for myself for a good 15 miles and I am now riding with strong legs and a smile on my face. I keep singing All you need is love, which is weird song to sing but it got stuck in my head today, I look at the massive wind turbines watching over me and of all the things that I can focus on in my brain, I think that so many things are happening in the world, what a simple and ridiculous thing to think. I ride from one small town to another, Indiana becomes Illinois and one corn field bleeds into another, a long succession interrupted again and again by nowhere towns. The whole ride becomes a moving image in my head where the convenience stores, the courthouses, the water towers, the ladies at the counter, all of it gets compressed in one uninterrupted blur. Ah! The water towers, unmistakable signs that the West is coming up; they are important features of my ride today, I spot them from a distance and they reveal how far the next town is. The water tower is a trusted compass and an important symbol of each tiny town lined up along the highway. Roads in Illinois are laid out in a perfect grid, very much like Kansas. You can't get lost but you could get confused. My GPS is not picking up any signal and I rely on the sheet of paper on which I scribbled the list of roads to follow. This is how I plan the day, the previous night I check the map on my ipad and I go over where I will be cycling the next day. In case the GPS on my phone does not work I write down the roads I am supposed to follow on a scrap of paper. It is a rudimental but it works.
By 5PM, after all the asphalt-related anger and the headwind, my legs begin to feel heavy and I am getting bored with the riding, 9 hours among wheat fields with a headwind sounds like a punishment or a jail inmate routine but when the wind abates and the sun begins to appear behind the clouds I fall in love with the scenery and I would not want to stop now. I pick off one town after the other. Fast and determined. It is crazy how the mood and long with it the physical condition can swindle in a single day. Illinois is more benevolent with road surfaces apparently and conditions are ideal now: I cruise from one hamlet to the next. I don't stop, I don't sip water, I don't eat. The final part of the day turns out to be the best moment of my ride. Fast, self-assured, pretty. Does this town have a hotel, yes. This will do, no, one more, 10 more miles, 15 more miles, keep going, another one, I am being greedy and I push myself and I reach Gilman at 7 pm and that's where I stop. Two motels exist here. I ride to the west side of town where the Motel 6 by the highway looks good enough. I am afraid that the owner or whoever is in the office will not allow me to check in. Before I enter the motel I take a look at myself in the hotel doors and I have rarely seen a more depressing and sorry-looking man. I can't believe the state I am in. How did I get like this in only 7 days? Luckily for me the Indian guy at the front desk won't even bother to look at me -he must be used to all sorts checking in in here- I hit the shower hoping that the oil will come off, I scrub my skin so hard that it is still sore and purple from the laborious washing, most of the liquid asphalt comes off but not all of it. I wish there was somebody here who could wash it for me, I can't reach behind my legs properly. Shall I ask the guy downstairs? Not to come up to my room and in the shower of course but I could ask him if he has a sponge downstairs. Not a good idea. I will keep the grease on a bit longer. Maybe for ever. Sounds good to me.
Today along the several quick stops along the road, mostly outside gas stations, many people asked me what I am doing. The farther I travel the more people wish to know who this dirt-flecked loner on a bicycle is. While everyone is courteous, I notice that most people cannot carry an entire conversation, they will shoot a few questions and then almost completely ignore my answers, they do listen to what I say but they don't use it as a foothold for the next part of the conversation. It is all one-word questions and answers. I would like to reflect further about this but I am so tired that I cannot even read what I wrote today. Forgive me if most of it is nonsense. My phone has no signal, I'm in the middle of a field 90 miles south of Chicago. It is 10 pm and I hear a train whistling in the distance, the motel is full of truck drivers. I have tar on my legs that won't wash off. The owner of this place is from India and hardly speaks English. There is a Mc Donald and a Denny's as dinner option. The only recognizable sign out of my window is the underpass of the highway. I don't feel out of place at all. Me and the dozens of truck drivers. The road is the only thing that holds us together but it is significant enough, like an unspoken promise, a whispered vow, a collection of innermost secrets to be shared and protected. There is respect among travelers. A bounded existence of uncertainty where home is an idea. Or a hope maybe.
I am looking at the bike and I am thinking, you are all I need now. I just wish you were a little cleaner. But you still look pretty to me. Almost 800 miles together. The moon is high in the sky and glows its white light reassuringly. The passing train is still whistling, I love the way the earth is saying good night to me tonight.