I love where I wake up. It is in the middle of a sweeping corn field which twinkles in the sunlight. I don't mind the Mc Donalds and a couple of gas stations that obstruct the view. My eyes go beyond that. It is as rural as you get. No traffic, no wind, just a long straight road that goes west. Welcome to my world.
Nothing is ever straight though. Not even the laser straight road that unfolds ahead like a carpet. I thought about quitting yesterday; today I want to create something special. Today I am in love with cycling again.
The motel does not provide breakfast; I am not hungry, I efficiently pack my small bag, I stuff my rain jacket, my long sleeve jersey and a t-shirt into the tiny backpack and at 7.30 I am on the road . Most vehicles go wither north or south on the interstate, there is very little traffic going west. It is just a perfect morning for a ride. I can smell the corn, I can smell the earth slowly coming to life. Gilman is the smallest town I have stayed at and the highway feeling makes me excited, curious, alive. Much to surprise after 7 days on the road and close to 800 miles, today I am bursting with energy, my legs respond well to my command, I want to ride fast. For the first time since I left DC I get on the bike without qualms or flirting with the idea of quitting; I am clear-minded, poised, determined to reach Los Angeles.
Nothing but corn fields interrupted by small towns every ten or fifteen miles and the railway that cuts through the flat sweeps. The railway towns I ride through are dusty, small, silent; they all look pretty much alike, same atmosphere, same layout; same architecture. I hardly stop to take a snapshot and off I go on the bike; I feel like I am running from one town to the next, like a falling star shooting across the sky that never drops. West, west, west. The trajectory of a shooting star is an arc, just like my route across America. Rule number 4, always, at all costs, avoid straight lines. I push on my pedals feeling strong, all my senses heightened. Too much to see, too much to listen to, just too much going on under the sun. 65F degrees provide a cool setting to ride in and the wind is still asleep. No wind, no traffic, the road surface is as smooth as the top of a newborn's head. I am entirely in my ride today, absorbing it all, these are the moments that create happiness: the road is the show and I have an all-areas pass. I hope it lasts for a while. The corn fields stand chest-height and when the road gently drops the plants take on a self-assured look and stand tall against a gentle breeze that manages to slightly bend the plant tops. A narrow strip of grass with violet blossoms separates the corns to the edge of the road where a white line reminds me all too clearly that Illinois does not provide shoulders for some crazy cyclists like myself. That's fine, as long as the traffic is light I can safely ride in the lane. I ride along a neverending railtrack with a freight train that sits silently on a slow Wednesday morning. The rusty sides of the train make me wish for a better view. But even here this seemingly mundane elements make for a perfect setting. I ride on and I pass farmhouses and barns, nothing at all would suggests that a city will ever be built here. This is the Cornbelt, it might not be as exciting as the East Coast, or sweeping and breathtaking as the West but every little town, every little piece of Americana has a story to tell. The Belt straddles the Iowa and Illinois region, and this is it, I am riding right through it. This is the mighty agricultural engine that runs efficiently and feeds the rest of the country. Sweet.
The first and the last parts of the day have been absolutely brilliant: the road, myself and the tall, reassuring corn fields which seem solid green walls that protect the road from impending danger. Between the cool weather, the wind yesterday and the rough road surface I feel I am beating the Mid-West at its own game, I can stand the challenges it throws at me while cranking up miles. Almost one thousand miles, I am either burning out or I am getting in good shape. We'll see. Even though I am so in love with the ride today a thought creeps in the back of my mind: I can wait to get to the mountains. I am longing for the West I must confess but I can wait.
Possibly today has been the easiest day of the ride, whatever that means. Certainly the absence of the wind makes it all seem easier, faster, better. I can ride and I can hear myself think. Amid the smooth riding I single out the low point of the day, which was the urban mess of Peoria. I apologize in advance to all Peorians out there but you guys have one of the ugliest towns I have ever seen. By far this must be the least bike-friendly place on earth, the roads are all tore up, there are no bike lanes anywhere, not even around the college area and the campus and all the roads, big and small alike, are full of pot holes. I struggle to get around as I try to avoid the deep cracks on the surface. At times I even stop and drag the bike on the sidewalk. I get nervous, the bike is a gentle creature and deserves kindness. Peoria does not provide any. This was confirmed to me by the guy at the bike shop -Illinois Cycle and Fitness, apparently the oldest bike shop in the US (from 1873). As I have done previously in all the bike shops I have visited I engage in conversation with the staff and reply to all the carefully posed questions about my ride. They all seem curious to know where I am going, which way I am going and very impressed with my progress. It feeds my confidence I must say. I however, offer an innocent smile and pin it down to sheer luck. I leave the bike store with a bigger ego and bigger tires, inflated with pressure but it takes me almost two hours to get in and out of Peoria. At the end doing so is a huge relief. As I exit the outskirts I rejoin the familiar setting, corn fields and farmland. I try to put on sunscreen again but my skin is so coated with the dirt and grime that it won't soak in; it just swirls around and collects in clumps. I catch a glimpse of my face on the car window and the sunscreen makes me as pale as a ghost. Last night at the end of the ride I cut a very rugged and haggard figure in the mirror of the Motel's bathroom. I shaved this morning and the clean sensation brings some order to my thoughts. After Peoria I feel all dirty and smelly again. I ride west and continue to pass through towns with names that suggest nothing about their existence. Only about their aspirations. Only in America! I love it! The endless fields are broken up occasionally by a farm with a big barn next to it. The scene repeats itself over and over. I see a few heads of cattle and I quickly notice that the land begins to regain some rolling features, it is not completely flat like Indiana or western Ohio. All the farms are in pristine conditions, white fences, new paintwork, sturdy roofs and clean and tidy lawns. The late afternoon ride, after Peoria, goes fast and at around 7 I enter Knoxville with 130 miles in the legs, I scout the area looking for a motel but find nothing. Luckily for me Galesburg is only 6 miles farther west. The daylight begins to fade and when I ride through the tired-looking downtown area I locate a hotel at the North end of town I suddenly realize that I am pretty fatigued but I could have gone on. There is still much left in the tank.
I am checking out the map and I can see that I am making progress. I want to go on. I want to make it as far as I can. I am not even thinking about a rest day. I am too restless for a rest day. I am itching for the mountains. It is lonely, it is tiring and stressful at times but the West is calling out to me. I have nothing behind and nowhere to go but west. I throw a glimpse at every road sign with the word 'west' on it with a defiant look as to say 'I'm coming'.
Now I am in the Mid-West.These are the little towns take make up the middle of America. A long way to go for that but I already sense that I am beginning to ride into the sinus between the coast and the backbone of this country. Life takes on a slower, almost insignificant pace dictated by the whims and the moods of nature and human life adjusts to it, it has adjusted, it must adjust for its survival. Granted I am still in Illinois but I begin to see the vestige of a dimension still not hemmed by the rigors of metropolitan life. These are small rural communities that work closely together, and stick together. It all feels so familiar from my tour last year. I cannot wait to get past the Mid-west not because I don't feel in tue with this but because I am intrigued by far away places, where the weather and desolation make human life a challenging proposition. The human spirit endures sacrifices that are hard to imagine; I am thinking about the people with no access to water and about the people that move west looking for a life.
As I finish writing the journal I can hear hundreds of crickets chirping furiously in the cool night. The corn fields are still. The road is quiet. The lulling sound of the crickets sends me to sleep.
7:40 AM, Illinois, welcome to my world
Fairbury, main st.
And old pal of mine, Route 66, intersects my itinerary
The smallest City Hall?
During a break
Lots of republicans in the Land of Lincoln
Crossing the Chicago River at Peoria
What a jolly old bunch of healthy-looking farmers
Thank God for the sign!