Galesburg, Il - Williamsburg, Ia : 128 miles. Total: 1049 miles
Three milestones today: I cross the Mississippi, I enter Iowa, and the first 1000 miles are done and dusted. The motel feels totally empty, almost in disuse if it weren't for the lady at the front desk and the TV spewing muffled words from the corner of the breakfast room. I am the only person here. I quickly chow down a bowl of oatmeal and bagels and I cannot wait to get out of here. I am on the road at 7.30 and aside for a cloudy sky and an unseasonably chilly air of 59F what do I find? A gentle tailwind. It's more of a breeze than a real wind but I'll take it! God forbid I get a real tailwind right?! I enjoy the historic moment and I let my legs slide on the bike and I listen to the whooshing sound which seems to echo in the open fields. I just glide hitting 25 mph and I can't believe the little effort I need to put into this. Very little traffic and a smooth surface gift me a perfect way to start the day. I ride 25 miles north passing through three little towns and then I turn west where the road takes me all the way to the Mississippi Valley. There are familiar sites; having cycled cross-country before I have crossed the Mississippi in each single occasion. I ride by the Great River Road sign, the square green sign which heralds the proximity of the scenic byway which I rode on for an entire day last year on my survival ride. As I approach the valley, I see in the distance the road dropping sharply and the overgrowth turning greener, thicker. I know what it means, I don't need any signs here: it is the mighty river, the Mississippi. When I am on the bridge I say to myself: this is my moment of no return, once I cross it I swear to God I am gonna make it all the way to California. This is what I said I'd do the moment I left DC. If I can drag my ass all the way to the river you go all the way. If I quit I will quit before the Mississippi, but once I pass it I am not going to quit. With this silent vow that I establish with myself and the bike and the Gods I stand tall on the pedals as I approach the mounds where the steel bridge is anchored on. In a matter of a minute I find myself on the hill running along the shores of the river and after a second I see the shimmering water running fierce from north to south. I am in the middle of America, of course it is not a middle in the geographical sense but it is a state of mind. From here on out it is all hands on deck to the West, forward! Westbound! Funny how landmarks inject adrenaline into me. State signs, towns, rivers, mileage, all of those provide the mind assurances and confirmations. The green road signs announcing the bridge over the Mississippi bring me to a fever pitch of excitement, my arms tense, my veins are stirred to life, my eyes widen, feet moving fast. I pump my fists three, four times and I yell out some obscenity and a Whitmanesque Yawp! like I have discovered a West passage that will change history. But on the Mississippi in 8 day from the coast is a feat I am proud of. It could have been seven days if it hadn't been for the rain back in the Appalachians. The ride on the bridge is tricky as one lane is closed and vehicles cannot pass me. I find a break in the traffic flow and I stop to snap away! When I am safely on the other side I turn around to admire the big river which quietly flows downstream. This river is broad and the water appears calm but they tell me that it is dangerous. Every year bodies pop up here and there and even all the way down the Gulf of Mexico. When I stare at the water I wonder what it would be like to die by drowning. With these cheerful thoughts I get my blister-covered ass back on the bike and I leave the river behind.
Illinois has been brief. The country reminded me of Virginia, a poorer version of it, less groomed, wider fields, scattered houses, iron bridges, untidy and rusting fences, twisting creeks and lots of dead animals pasted all over the roads. I could write a page just on the variety of carcasses I have had to dodge. Hundreds of putrid pieces either rotting in the sunlight or being dismembered by crows and the acrid smell lingering in the air for hundreds of yards. A few signs, not as many as I saw in Kentucky or Missouri on the 2010 ride but I saw quite a few signs reminding the road users to love Jesus or to Praise the Lord or to stay away from sin because if you do God will save you. Another sign, and this is the most popular, with big letters which warns that "Christ is the answer". But they never tell you what the question is.
Past the Missi, I am in Iowa, finally. Ohio, Indiana and Illinois seemed immense. Three different states but the never-ending land mass of corn fields was the common denominator for all of them, one right after the other and the next exactly the same to the previous one, it all made me feel like I pedaled for days in the same state. Iowa seems to be different, the land, the signs, the sky even. The land is hillier than the Plains, the road signs suggest that winters are pretty rough with lots of snow and below zero temperatures. And then there is the sky which as I move west takes on deeper hues, subtler colors, clearer definitions. It might be my imagination but I think the sky does reflect the change. I ride into Iowa City and head straight to the bike shop for a quick checkup. The bicycle looks good but the chain needs changing soon. I am thinking Sioux City could be the place. Iowa City disappoints me. I ride purposely through downtown to check out what the vibe is like but despite the large college population the town seems underwhelming, small and disorganized. I decide against stopping here for the night and I easily find a country road out of its western edges. I realize that after so many days riding in rural country my standards for buildings, streets and people have shifted. I enjoy the dusty little towns where the post office and a diner still hold on to it are represent the heart of it. I want to find a place like that for the night. A few miles out of the town the breeze subsides and the road begins to rise and drop again and again. I have small but persistent hills ahead. The hilly terrain does not bother me though and I still have plenty of energy left. I ride a beautiful rural road which takes me 30 miles out of town and offers me a fantastic peaceful ride into a rural land of intimate and rustic features. For the first time since I left DC I put my earphones on and the music adds a crucial ingredient to the ride. I don’t normally like to do that, the music impairs my ability to hear traffic and distracts me from concentrating on riding safely. But this time on this quiet country road I know that traffic won't bother me so I can relax. I only wear one bud just for safety. My legs feel incomprehensibly fresh, the scenery is simple yet endearing, the weather is mild and windless, I am riding my bike somewhere in Iowa headed God knows where, I lift my head to let the air hit my neck and face, my arms feel light and I outstretch them while I ride, not a soul in sight, I feel an unbounded and unconditional sense of freedom. My mouth forms a smile, I realize that this is as close to happiness as I can ask. I wish the afternoon never ended but it does. I let the great feeling sink in my bones and make it last for as much as possible and when I come to the junction with a bigger road, a state highway, I focus on finding a place for the night. A simple highway motel is what I need. Only two miles north there's one. My legs carry me fast on the overpass. The parking lot is empty and I am the only guest, could this be possible? The burly lady at the desk hardly looks at me but breaks a welcoming smile when I present my credit card. I lift my bike with my right hand on the stairs and wedge it into the room, after a long hot shower, I lie on the king size bed thinking about today's ride. As I hear distant cars drive by and a bird chirping softly from a tree or a bush somewhere reminds me that everything around me is seethed with life. I know I am safe.