Monday, October 5, 2015

Headwinds Across Illinois

Gusting winds were blowing me all over the road and sometimes off it for 160 miles on my home stretch run across Illinois from the Mississippi River to Chicago.  My water bottles weren't translucent, so I couldn't claim to have white caps in them, as did "Des Moines Register" columnist John Karras, co-founder of RAGBRAI, on one of his rides across Iowa, but I wouldn't have doubted if there were. If someone had stopped to offer me a ride, as happened in Nebraska in much milder conditions, I might have accepted it, not only to be spared the danger and the strain of the conditions, but also because I had ridden this highway a couple times before.

A grizzled old-timer in a beat-up pickup truck did stop with an offer, but it was only a five dollar bill.  It was a few miles past Mendota at about my halfway point across the state.  "I spent a couple years on the road myself," he said.  "I know what its like out there.  Here take this.  There's a McDonald's a couple miles up the road.  Have yourself a cup of coffee and something to eat. You're lucky to be passing through, as things aren't so good here.  Two of our three factories are closed up.  Lots of people are out of work and a good many of those who aren't have to drive a long ways to their jobs in other towns.  I'm lucky to be retired." 

He wasn't the only kindly soul who wasn't particularly well-off who thought I might be a victim of these hard times and short on funds. The day before outside of Davenport I stopped to ask a bedraggled older fellow, who from a distance appeared to be a touring cyclist, for a cycling-friendly bridge over the Mississippi.  The bags adorning his bike were actually filled with aluminum cans and he was stopped along the road gathering more.   He said he liived in a tent in the nearby woods. After he gave me directions to the Centennial Bridge, I asked him if there was a grocery store up ahead.  "Do you need some money?," he asked.  "I could give you some."  

I felt as if I should have been the one doing the offering.  I'd pick up a pair of vise grips a few miles back.  "Could you use this?," I asked.

"That's in pretty good condition," he said.  "How much do you want for it?"

"No, no, take it," I said.  "I was just rescuing it from the road and looking for someone to give it to."  Then I pulled out a couple of bungee cords and offered him those too.  "No thanks," he said. "I find plenty of those myself."  

It was late in the day.  He advised me not to try to bushwhack in downtown Davenport as there were some unsavory characters there.  He is caught by dark on occasion in the city and has to be careful where he sleeps.   "I sleep sitting up so I can make a quick eacape," he said.  "There are punks who like to come along and give you a boot."  

I was sorry I was pressed for time, otherwise I would have asked if I could share his campsite in the woods. I knew he could keep me up late with his tales.  Though he might not have been monetarily rich, I knew he'd led a life rich in experience.  He had not an iota of resentment or despair.  He was a survivor who was doing just fine.

I had to ride on a narrow sidewalk across the bridge and could only take quick glances at the river below a I tried to hold my line in the strong wind. I had visited the Carnegie in Moline a couple years ago, so I could head right out of town.  I crossed the Rock River before its confluence with the Mississippi and passed through the town of Milan.  A car dealership had a banner out front that might have been inspired by Huck Finn.

I little further, as dark fell, I camped along the Quad City International Airport, my first non-cornfield campsite in days.  The wind ruffled my tent all night. I had to wear an extra layer to stay warm in my sleeping bag.   In the morning several formations of geese passd overhead on their way south.  There wasn't a Carnegie Library along the route that I hadn't visited.  My stops were minimal.  I just grinded away into the strong wind between seven and eleven miles per hour depending on what the wind and terrrain allowed.  With 1,500 miles in my legs from Telluride, they were strong enough to put in close to eight hours of effort in the less than twelve hours of light at my disposal.  There was no relaxing or gliding in these conditions.  

Struggle though it was, it was satisfying to be out in these less than optimal conditions and persevering, watching the farmers in their huge combines harvesting their corn and appreciating a few early Halloween decorations.  One farmhouse just east of Walnut was populated by an army of nearly a hundred ghoulish characters, some hanging from trees.  One guarded the mail box.

Another supervised the sale of road kill.

The sun was setting.  I didn't want to camp too near this band of characters.  A few miles down the road I found a high and thick field of unharveated corn that provided enough of a windbreak that I thought the wind might have calmed down during the night.  But when I emerged from my tent I could see the nearby wind-turbines were still spinning and pointing in the wrong direction. On I pushed.  I had 90 miles to Janina's. I really wanted to make it this day even if I had I to push on into the dark. I knew once I got to the urban sprawl the wind would be somewhat blunted.  

I was within twenty miles when the last of the sun's light was gone.  I had turned on to 75th from highway 34.  It had a nice wide shoulder.  I'd never come in this way before and didn't know if the shoulder would hold up all the way to my turn on to Plainfield.  Before I could find out the air turned misty and my glasses became dewy.  My limited visibility became even more limited.  I survived for six miles riding with great caution.  I wasn't tired, but this was becoming a bit too stressful and perilous.  I had passed up several forests already, wondering if it was a mistake.  When I came to another, better judgement prevailed and I turned in.  At the speed I was going it would be at least two more hours of riding in the dark, swearing out each revolution of the pedals.  Rather than feeling defeated, I felt happy to have one last night in my tent.  It made my arrival at Janina's the next morning all the more joyous.  Though I was reveling in the completion of another great journey, I was already looking forward to being back on the road next month for a ride to Fort Benning in Georgia once again for the vigil honoring the six Jesuits priests and their housekeeper and her daughter murdered in El Salvador twenty-six years ago.

Friday, October 2, 2015

West Liberty, Iowa

When I saw a set of bike sculptures in front of the Carnegie Library in West Liberty, I wondered if they had been put up by someone anticipating my arrival. It wasn't likely, as the last two Carnegies on my route were no longer libraries, so no one within the last one hundred miles could have alerted West Liberty to me and my quest, as happened in Indiana last spring.  

My first question for the librarian, rather than "Do I need a password for your WIFI?," was, "What's the significance of the bike sculptures out front?"  Several of the librarians had ridden RAGBRAI this past July as a fund raiser for the library and the sculptures brought attention to their endeavor.  They raised over $5000 from pledges and also the sale of T-shirts. There was one on display on the circulation desk along with a photo of the four librarians and a city councilman who participated in the ride.

I figured the library would have at least a couple of the several books written about RAGBRAI.  None were on display, so I asked where the 700 section was.  "We no longer use the Dewey Decimal System," I was told.  "We file things by subject.  I'll show you where our bike books are."

Not all were grouped together, as personal accounts were in the biography section.  There were two about people who had ridden coast-to-coast, one of which I had read, but curiously none on RAGBRAI, especially since the librarian I  was talking to had ridden RAGBRAI five times and was the inspiration for the others to do it. She had also just read the recently published "Gironimo!" on the 1914 Giro d'Italia that I am eager to read.  There was enough local bike interest for the library's copy to be checked out.  She was aware of my friend Greg Borzo's 2013 book laden with photos on the history of RAGBRAI, but hadn't acquired it.  She checked the holdings of other Iowa libraries and could find only one that had a copy of it.  

She wasn't all that surprised, as she explained that RAGBRAI isn't as popular within the state as out-of-staters might think, as many Iowans are turned off by some of the rowdiness associated with it.  There are those who ride it once and say they'll never do it again.  I asked if she knew my friend Kathy, who has ridden it many times with a schnauzer.  "Of course, everybody knows her," she said.  "She's so popular that she charges people to take her photo with her dog and gives the money to a charity, an animal shelter."

I hadn't noticed Carnegie's portrait and asked if they had one.  It was high above the elevator facing the library's new entrance.  The library had been expanded in 2001, extending it off to the left without it appearing to be an addition.

To the right of the original entrance there was a cabinet with books for trade.  

It was a replica of such cabinets known as "Little Free Lbraries" offered by  They sell kits ranging from $150 to $1000. Janina has several neighbors out in LaGrange with such contraptions in front of their homes.  This was built by a local craftsman.  He had made six of them, all of different designs.  They were scattered around town in parks and other public places.  The library stocks them with discards if their quantities wane.  The librarian acknowledged that not everyone trades a book for a book as is encouraged, but she was just happy that people were availing themselves of the books.  They used to have extra "Oprah" books to spread around, as for a couple year period early in her program they would receive a monthly batch of twelve hard-back copies of her latest selection.  She also had great words of commendation for Bill Gates.  He had made it possible for her libary and countless others to join the Internet age.  Without his generosity they would not have been able to afford computers.  She felt almost as much goodwill towards him as she did for Carnegie.

Our conversation went on for so long talking of books and bikes, my legs began to tire and I had to apologize that I needed to sit. I had been pushing into a strong head wind the past three days, partially thanks to hurricane Joaquim brewing in the Caribbean, blasting a cold wind out of the east.  I had wanted to make it back to Chicago by the end of the month to help my roommate clear out of our apartment, as our landlord had sold our building to a developer and we were being evicted.  I had moved out most of my stuff before I left for Telluride, but had left a few minor items behind, mostly posters and pictures.  Debbie had gained permission from the new landlord to leave such things in the basement through the weekend as long as everything was out of our apartment.  I was sorry the winds were preventing me from helping her complete her move.

I had extended my mileage a bit by swinging up to the college town and state capital, Iowa City, for its Carnegie.  It had been a dandy, but had been converted into five apartments catering to students. It had lost its luster and wasn't particularly well-maintained.  The grounds around it were strewn with cigarette butts.  It was on the fringe of the campus, across the street from the new large glassy library.  A large number of students were wearing Iowa sweatshirts in the chilly fifty degree temperature, that had me in tights for the first time on this trip.

I had to push directly into the northeast wind for over fifty miles from the previous Carnegie in Sigourney.  It was in the process of being converted into a residence even though it still had a canopy with "Library" on it over its entrance.  The new library on the outskirts of the town had little more character than a warehouse.  The librarian Wspoke with great nostalgia for what a fine place it had been to spend her days.

West Liberty would be the last of my Carnegies in Iowa, as the one in Davenport, where I would cross the Mississippi back into Illinois, had been demolished.  That left me with an even dozen in Iowa, two more than on my crossing two years ago.  That leaves me with seventy-six more to track down in the state.  There had been 108, but ten are no more.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Eldon, Iowa

When I entered the Carnegie Library in Leon I was greeted by the librarian, who handed me a sturdy cloth bag with the library's name on it and the slogan, "Branching to the future, Rooted in the past."  He said, "We're celebrating going electronic today and we're giving out these bags to the first fifty people to enter the library.  Help yourself to the home-made cookies and lemonade over there and take a pen too."

"My goodness.  You've actually still been using a card catalogue up until now?"

"We have.  And if you'd like it, you're welcome to participate in our silent auction."

"Do you have any books on RAGBRAI," I asked.

"I don't think so, but I'll check."

While he did, I gave a quick glance to the 796.6 section.  There wasn't a single cycling book, nor were there any on RAGBRAI filed elsewhere.  I was becoming accustomed to such news.  I had recently heard the author of "Rumble Yell," a first-person account of riding across Iowa with thousands of others, interviewed on the Outspoken Cyclist podcast.  I was hoping to read a chapter in each Iowa library I stopped at.  I had yet to read even a page of this 2013 book.

Even though Iowa is celebrated for and somewhat defined by this huge cycling event that dates to 1973, I had yet to meet anyone who had actually ridden it, not only this year, but also two years ago when it made a similar post-Telluride ride across the state.  It seems as if a good percentage of the 15,000 who join in on the ride every year are non-Iowans even though it was originated by a couple of Iowa journalists to celebrate their state.  I have no recollection from when I rode RAGBRAI thirty years ago how many locals were on the ride, only that we were treated very well by all the locals.

That hasn't changed.  Iowans have been significantly more friendly than those in Nebraska and most other states I have bicycled through.  I was pretty much ignored in Nebraska, but here in Iowa people are regularly approaching me for a word or two.  My next break after Leon, as I sat eating a burrito at a service station, an older guy wanted to share some of his bicycling exploits with me, including riding in RAGBRAI in its second year when there were only seventy participants.  At last, I finally met someone who had ridden RAGBRAI.  He enjoyed it, but never rode it again, preferring other bicycle adventures,  including riding to Alaska with a friend.  With typical Midwest non-chalance he commented, "I'm not bragging, but I was a little stronger on the hills than he was.  I found that if I let him lead the way, he'd ride harder than if I went ahead."

I wasn't able to scan the book shelves of the Mount Ayr Carnegie, as it only had week-day afternoon hours and I was there in the morning.  I would have liked to have seen if its interior had any extra touches similar to the tile mosaic of Public Library on its exterior.  It gazed upon the county courthouse in the town center from a corner plot of land that hadn't allowed for any additions.

I couldn't gain entry to the Corydon Carnegie either, though it didn't matter much, as it no longer served as a library. It was right next to the high school and had been appropriated by it after being replaced by a new library several blocks away.  Like Leon's library, it had Carnegie chiseled into its front facade.

As I stood gazing at it, a guy with a bandana on his head told me I ought to check out the mural in the post office across the street. "Its famous," he said. "It was one of those New Deal paintings."  It was painted in 1942 by Marian Gilmore, a student of Norman Rockwell.  It was entitled "Volunteer Fire Department." She had earlier won a nation-wide competition for a mural in another small town in Iowa.

Further down the road as I entered Bloomfield I came upon a series of homes brandishing Trump for President signs with the slogan "Make America Great Again," the first politicking, other than the many anti-abortion billboards, of these travels.  One Trump supporter was also flying the Confederate flag.


The Bloomfield Carnegie was adorned with an intricate ramp.  Few Carnegies are handicap-accessible as they generally have a symbolic set of steps that one must climb as if lofting their consciousness before gaining entry to the library.  The librarian told me that if I returned next year there would be an addition, its first significant alteration other than the ramp. The library did have National Historic status, so had to comply with certain regulations to make the addition.

The librarian in Eldon said she had been trying to raise funds for years to enlarge her one-room library but hadn't succeeded.  Her library had "Free" engraved in its facade, adding extra emphasis that I was going back in time when I entered to an era when not all libraries were free.  "Carnegie Library" was  chiseled in the corner stone and his portrait hung above the book shelves.  The bathroom was down a steep staircase accessed from the librarian's alcove behind the majesterial circulation desk. I was the only patron during its final forty-five minutes up to closing time at 5:30.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Bedford, Iowa

Even though Andrew Carnegie provided the funds for 1,689 libraries in the US, doubling the number of public libraries in the country during his era of giving between 1890 and 1920, not every town in the country has a Carnegie, though they could have if they met his simple criteria of providing a parcel of land for the library near its center and passing a bond issue to maintain it amounting to ten per cent per year of his contribution for the construction of the library.  He didn't even give away half as much money as he wanted to for libraries.

Still, there are so many of his libraries that when I pass through a town without one, I wonder how they could have missed the boat.  The town of Nebraska City on the Missouri River had a good excuse--a local benefactor had already provided them with a most substantial library.  Nebraska City was the home of Julius Sterling Morton, a newspaper publisher who was a strong advocate of tree planting and  the originator of Arbor Day in 1872.  He went on to be the first Secretary of Agriculture in 1893 under President Cleveland.  His son founded Morton Salt in Chicago and became someone of great wealth.  He funded a grand library in his home town in 1895.  It has been added on to and is grander than ever.  It screams for attention, unlike the quiet, assured dignity of a Carnegie. It had the ostentation that Carnegie discouraged, though one could hardly argue that an abode for books could be too nice.

Nebraska City made for a fine farewell to Nebraska, though the forty miles leading to it were on a four-lane divided highway with a non-stop din of traffic reverberating in my ears, the least pleasant stretch of my ride across the state, harkening me back to my ride along Colorado's Western Front.  I had a good, wide shoulder to ride on, but it didn't provide a distant enough buffer for me to even listen to my wealth of podcasts.  I had no viable alternative, as I ducked below Lincoln, having visited its set of Carnegies two years ago.  There are few bridges across the Missouri River.  I needed to cross at Nebraska City to begin my series of Carnegies along the southern border of Iowa.  

My final of seven Nebraska Carnegies came in Crete, seventy miles before leaving the state.  Its librarian gave me a brochure detailing its history and the services it offered.  It had had a large addition that blended nicely into its original red brick exterior.  

Among its amenities was a collection of 120 cake pans for borrowing.  "Is that a common feature of Nebraska libraries?" I asked.

"No, I think we're the only library in the state that does it," the librarian replied.

I didn't burst her bubble and tell her about the library in Arapahoe with a similar quantity of pans for its patrons.  Instead, I asked, "Are they popular?"

"Yes they are, especially during the holidays."

My route from Crete towards Lincoln included another unexpected stretch of gravel for five or six miles.  At least it was hard-packed and had virtually no traffic.  But I had to stop and add air to my tires as I had slow leaks in both of them after another encounter with goatheads the night before.  When I returned to the road from my cornfield campsite both tires were studded with the pesky little balls of small darts that can leave the barest of pinpricks in one's tubes.  I thought I had patched all the punctures, but unfortunately hadn't.  No bike shops remain in rural small-town American, but, miraculously, Walmart sells the not so common presta valve tubes, such as I needed, and also patch kits.  The first Walmart I came upon was out of the narrower tubes that I prefer, but the slightly wider ones sufficed.  I thought I had left the goatheads behind me by the time I reached Nebraska.  Hopefully they haven't encroached upon Iowa.

I crossed into Iowa after descending from the bluffs of Nebraska City and a Lewis and Clark park. I had dropped three thousand feet in my four hundred mile ride across the state. It was flat riding through a valley for six miles before turning south for nine miles on the shoulder of a bluff to the town of Hamburg a couple miles north of Missouri and my first Iowa Carnegie of these travels.  It was unmarred by additions and stood alone in full small-town glory with the sun setting behind it.  It was closed, but its WIFI required no password, so I was able to catch up with Janina on FaceTime.  She had the good news that she had completed her Telluride Journal and posted it at

Ten miles down the road I burrowed into a cornfield for the night.  I didn't have the space to allow the sun to hit my tent in the morning and dry the dew, so had to roll it up damp.  It was fifteen miles to Shenondoah and its Carnegie.  

As I sat on its steps with it closed on Sundays, drinking a chocolate milk and eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich, reading a book with its WIFI blocked, an elderly woman walked by and asked, "Where are you riding to?"  After I told her, she said she had walked the Appalachia Trail over twenty years ago when she was sixty. She's not the first such person who I've met in my travels who had accomplished the feat and knew I was someone who would appreciate it. "I did the whole thing and I did it on my own," she added.

"That's impressive," I said.  "I know a lot of people try, but not very many complete the whole trail."

"Yes, I'm a tough country girl."

"Do you bike?" I asked.

"I used to, but not since I got a pace-maker.  I'd like to talk some more, but I'm on my way to church. Sorry to ask you where you're going.  I know its none of my business.  I was just curious."

"Not at all.  Thanks for telling me about your hike.  Its always nice to meet someone who has accomplished that."

"God bless you."

The Carnegie in Clarinda had been converted into a first class art museum by a couple who had grown up in Clarinda and went on to a successful career in aviation in Lincoln, less than one hundred miles away.  The library had played an important part in their life's and they were happy to rescue it when it came up for auction a few years ago.  The current exhibit included an incinerated Citroen out front, the work of an Argentinian artist that represented the series of car bombings in his country during its years of unrest.

I reached Bedford and its Carnegie as the full moon that would be eclipsed in a few hours began to rise from the horizon in front of me.

With no signs for the library I stopped at the downtown Casey's General Store to ask its whereabouts and also to fill my water bottles. It was across the street on the corner of Jefferson and Madison.  It was a perfect example of a Carnegie--eighteen steps up to its entrance flanked by a pair of white globes not yet turned on.  Over the entry was "Public Library" and just below the word "Free."  Up above was 1916.  A plaque acknowledged it as a National Historic Place.  To the left was a flag pole.  It had no additions other than an air conditioning unit to its rear and a book return box out front.

I pedaled five miles down the road towards the moon until dark and slipped into a little gulley beside a corn field and behind a cluster of trees.  An hour later when I was eating my second bowl of ramen and creamed corn I heard a car stop along the road and then saw a bright spot light trying to penetrate the trees.  I opened my tent door for a better look.  There were actually two cars.  Then I heard a voice shouting, "Is anybody down there?"  They hadn't actually spotted me, but evidently I had been reported.  The officers seemed reluctant to approach me, so I climbed up to the road to face the consequences.

"I'm traveling by bicycle," I explained.

"We know," the young, non-threatening officers commented.  "We've had a couple of reports on you.  We heard you were at the Casey's in Bedford.  People around here are suspicious of strangers. A hitch-hiker passing through here a couple years ago shot some people. Do you have any ID."

I had it at the ready.  As I handed it over I asked, "Do you know how the Bears did today?"

"They we're losing 3-0 at the half."

"Could you ask how the game ended when you call in my license."

While one officer retreated to his car the other said, "Keep your hands out of your pockets if you would."

"What's the story on the hitch-hiker?" I asked. 

"He was an escaped convict from the Clarinda Correctional Facility.  He broke into somebody's house and got their guns and used them.  He actually shot my partner in the shoulder."

We had the eclipsing moon to watch while we waited the verdict on whether I was wanted.  The officer left with me said he thought it would be cool to ride one's bike across the country.  He hadn't ridden RAGBRAI, but had many friends who had and knew he'd do it one of these years.  When I told him I went to Bedford to see its Carnegie, he said his partner's wife was the librarian there and she was busy getting ready for its 100th anniverary next year.

When the other officer returned he said, "They lost 26-0.  You're clear."  Then he told his partner they had a domestic dispute to tend to."

"Sorry to put you guys out," I said.

"That's okay.  Have a good night."

During the interlude the moon had nearly disappeared. I saw much more of it than if I had been in my tent.  

I'm getting used to being checked out by the police.  Last year it happened four times in four states--Michigan, Colorado, Illinois and Indiana.  Like finding neckerchiefs, bungee cords and license plates along the road, its not an official tour until my driver's license has been called in.  I just wonder how more frequent it would be if I were another color or wore or turban.


Friday, September 25, 2015

Geneva, Nebraska

Last winter in Oman I camped night after night in great expanses of sandy deserts.  Across Nebraska I've been able to disappear into vast expanses of corn fields for the night.  I've been able to keep pedaling right up to dark knowing that I'd be able to slip into a nook amongst the head-high stalks when the light ran out.   Sometimes I've found a sliver right along the road and other times I've had to pedal a ways down a narrow dirt tractor path until I found space enough for my tent.  I've had no concern about being discovered.  Many of the towns I've been passing through have less than a hundred residents.  That doesn't mean they don't have character or characters.  One of the handful of those in Holstein, population 48, surrounded his home with sculptures of scrap metal including bicycle parts.  The centerpiece of his front yard was a pedestal of four bicycle wheels with cups to catch the wind.

He utilized a bicycle fork to concoct a creature that he perched atop a replica of an oil rig.

If he lived in the larger town of Arapahoe, the librarians would have had to keep a close eye on him to make sure he didn't try to appropriate any of their vast array of cake pans that could be borrowed for baking.

It wasn't a Carnegie.  There were only two Carnegies in the first two hundred miles on route 6 along the southern border of the state heading east from Colorado.  The first was in McCook, which I've already reported on, and then Holdrege, before a tight cluster of six of them.  Holdrege hardly counted as a Carnegie, as an addition in 1964 totally obliterated its character, actually knocking down its front facade and pair of pillars to extend the library out to the street.  

A framed photograph inside honored what it had once been.  

The librarians didn't seem distraught about the transformation of their library.  Rather they were proud that a local had donated a million dollars for its expansion.  Not only had the library been expanded to the front, but the rear as well.  Before I left they wanted to make sure I saw a giant stuffed dragon in the children's section in the back that was over thirty years old.  The woman who created it now lived in England but had returned a few years ago to restore it.

The most magnificent of the set of six Carnegies fifty miles up the road was in Hastings, a city large enough to have a Walmart.  Unfortunately, it had been torn down years ago and replaced on the same site with just a library.  Sutton, thirty miles further, was another of the eleven Carnegies of the sixty-nine built in Nebraska that had been demolished, a higher percentage than most states.  Only seven states though had more Carnegies than Nebraska.  It is one of the few states, along with Illinois and Indiana, that has had its Carnegies documented in a book--"A State of Readers--Nebraska's Carnegie Libraries," from 2005.  It was on prominent display in the Clay Center Carnegie, a classic one-room library that had not been added on to.  The librarian said the board had investigated the possibility, but didn't have the funds to do it.  

It was a rare Nebraska town with about the same population, 861, as when the library was built in 1915.  It was a pleasure to linger in the library, soaking up its century of satisying generations of the town's folk, reading about the state's Carnegies.  Most noteworthy was learning that someone had written an appreciation of James Bertram, who oversaw Carnegie's library program.  The American Library Associatin in Chicago has a copy of this book written in 1936.  It will be the first book I'll seek out when I return to Chicago, even ahead of the recent biography of Luis Ocana, the 1973 winner of The Tour de France.

The town of Harvard, nine miles away, had shrunk from 6,000, when its Carnegie was built, to 998 today, of which twenty per cent are Hispanic and not all English speaking according to an elderly jogger I stopped as I approached the town to ask the way to the library.  I also asked him if the library was open, as the one in Fairfield only had afternoon hours three days a week.  He said, "I ought to know, as I'm on the board,  but I can't tell you."  It had an odd set of hours, three to eight on Tuesdays,  one to six on Wednesdays and Thursdays, nine to two on Fridays and ten to two on Saturdays.

Even odder were the hours of the library in Fairfield, thirteen miles away.  The most direct route between Fairfield and Harvard was on a dirt road for ten miles.  That truly gave me the sense of being being out in rural America.  With a population of less than five hundred, Fairfield's library was only open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1:35 to 5:25.  I was there at nine a.m. hoping to find a cafe serving hotcakes.  The town did have a deli and a restaurant, but neither opened for breakfast.  I had to make do with a pint of chocolate milk and corn flakes from the town's small grocery store.  I hoped I could take advantage of the library's WIFI as I sat on its front steps under a plaque that said it had been designated a National Historic Place in 2001, but it required a password.

I asked the friendly librarian at Clay Center about the unusual hours of the Fairfield Library.  "We think there is something strange in their water there," she said.  "They make the librarian punch a time clock at the city hall before she reports to duty.  She signs in at 1:30 and then opens the library a few minutes later, and then closes up a little before she signs out at 5:30."

I concluded my day of Carnegie-hopping in Geneva, a veritable metropolis of 2,000 residents.  In 1995 its citizens raised $650,000 to quadruple the size of their library built in 1912 for $9,750.  They were proud to do it without any federal assistance through church groups holding soup suppers and the sale of $100 bricks and other donations.  The locals seemed to have a history of independent-thinking.  The local newspaper published a letter shortly after the construction of the library that didn't totally embrace Carnegie.  It read, "However much Mr. Carnegie may be censured for his methods of money making, we certainly cannot but commend him and congratulate ourselves for one method he is using to spend a portion of his vast accumulation."  The seamless red brick addition to its rear didn't diminish its stature.  

Just one more Carnegie in Nebraska on my route and then another dozen or so across Iowa.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

McCook, Nebraska

A sign on the outskirts of the tiny town of Briggsdale, Colorado warned it was sixty miles until the next gas station.  The gas station attendant said there might be food and water before then at a cafe thirty miles down the road, but that it wasn't always open. I had food enough, a loaf of bread and peanut butter and honey and a few packs of Ramen.  I only needed to top off my four water bottles to be set for the night if I didn't make it to Sterling before nightfall.  It was only noon.  If the wind remained calm, I ought to make it.  The terrain was flat and not always fenced as I entered the Pawnee National Grasslands.  I had been on a gradual, imperceptible descent for the past fifty miles since leaving Fort Collins.

Luck was with me when I reached the even smaller town of Buckingham.  Its cafe was open and it served breakfast at all times and like an increasing number of these small cafes, it offered WIFI, though it didn't advertise it.  I could fuel up on a stack of hotcakes.  That gave me more than enough energy to reach Sterling before dark.  I didn't need to search out its Carnegie, the first since Fort Collins one hundred miles away, as I had made its acquaintance two years ago. Sterling is on the Platte River. On my last visit, it was bracing for a surge of flood waters headed its way from Boulder.  I followed the Platte, staying ahead of the surge by a day, as communities all along the river were putting out sand bags.  This year I would stay south of the Platte following route 6 going through a different series of towns across Nebraska with a Carnegie.

Just as two years ago, I happened to be in Sterling on the weekend of its annual town party.  There was music in its central plaza and tents with vendors selling food.  And all about town were bike sculptures similar to those I see along The Tour de France route.  The first came as a surprise at a car lot.

Along the downtown streets were a series of mannequins on bikes.

I didn't have time to search for all of them in the waning light.  The Platte River flowed through the outskirts of the Sterling. Along its banks was the Overlland Trail Recreational Area.  It offered picnic tables and some trails.  There were no marked camp sites, nor signs prohibiting camping.  I found a quiet nook amongst driftwood on a sandy bank that suited me fine.  When I pushed my bike through the weeds the next morning, my tires were full of small burrs known as "goatheads" when I reached the parking lot. My front tire had picked up the majority of them.   I couldn't simply brush them off. I had to extract them one by one, hoping they hadn't penetrated to the tube.  I didn't hear or feel any air seeping out.  But two miles down the road I could feel my front tire going soft.  Later when I submerged the tube in water I quit counting after five tiny punctures.  A couple hours later my front tire went flat again. The wind and blown a goathead onto the road.  I was riding in great peril, down to just one spare tube.

But as I closed in on Nebraska, the Cornhusker state, fields of corn began lining the road, driving out the weeds that produced the goatheads.  After camping besides a bale of hay next to a corn field the next morning I awoke to a semi-soft rear tire, a super-slow leak from a goathead the day before.  I didn't need to patch it then, rather pumping up the tire until I was in need of a rest later to replace the tube.

Now that I was in Nebraska, towns gave their population rather than elevation, though I knew I had dropped over one thouand feet from Fort Collins to under four thousand.  The small towns every twenty miles or so were more dead than alive.

It was eighty-six miles from the border until I came to a town large enough to have a Carnegie, McCook with a population of four thousand.  It was now a wing of the town's High Plains Museum, though it still proudly proclaimed itself a Carnegie Library on its exterior, unlike any of the fourteen I had just seen along Colorado's Western Front.  

The new library, built twenty years ago, was two blocks up the brick-lined street, Norris, between First East and First West.  Night was coming on, so I didn't take the time to give it a look.  If I had known about the free camp site less than a mile away complete with free showers, I wouldn't have been in a rush to get out of town to find a field to camp in.  Four of the five campsites were occupied by retirees in RVs.  It wasn't the first town along route 6 that offered such camping, but the first I had come upon with showers.  The town park in many of the towns are their chief feature with covered picnic tables and rest rooms and sometimes the invitation to camp.  Even though it was communal camping, I didn't object for this night.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Fort Collins, Colorado

After Denver I continued north along the Western Front to the Carnegies in Boulder, Longmont and Fort Collins.  The din of the relentless, often bumper-to-bumper, traffic had me longing to start heading east away from the mountains into the wide-open spaces of the Plains that extended to the horizon off to my right even if it meant the Carnegies would be few and far between. 

The rugged mountains affirmed this was the West, but the traffic was more like the eastern seaboard. This wasn't the quiet rural America that I was seeking.  The desert terrain on the fringe of the mountains was packed with housing developments for over 150 miles from Colorado Springs north.  "Colorful Colorado" is not only a popular place to visit but also to move to.

The traffic was so thick through the college towns of Boulder and Fort Collins bicyclists were banned from their main thoroughfares.  Boulder at least had a fairly decent bicycle path alternative, but Fort Collins just offered meager sidewalks that didn't always go through.  These towns were catering to motorists rather than obliging or encouraging the more sensible means of transportation.  Colorado is not as enlightened as one might think, though it does utilize the round-about more than most states.

I was on the sidewalk along Broadway through the heart of Boulder when I came to Pine Street and a prominent sign that pointed to its Carnegie Library off to the left, half a block down the residential street.  It is no longer the city's main library but rather a research library for local history with only limited hours.  A plaque acknowledged Carnegie for donating $15,000 for its construction in 1906.  That was fifty per cent more than his usual grants, allowing for an extra degree of magnificence.  The plaque implied Boulder deserved it, as it was known as the "Athens of the West."

The bike rack out front was as noteworthy as the library.

The city of Longmont twenty miles to the north was another burgeoning town that had greatly outgrown its Carnegie.  It had been replaced by a huge two-story building with large glass windows all around that was more aesthetically pleasing than many such newer libraries.  It gained extra points with a superb collection of bicycle books including a recent biography of Tour winner Luis Ocana, one of the handful who committed suicide, and also Timothy Moore's second cycling book, "Gironimo!," on the 1914 Giro d'Italia, in which only eight of its eighty-one starters finished.  I would have loved to have stayed and read them both, but I already had them on reserve back in Chicago.

The former Carnegie was right next door.  It now housed a local radio station and cable television station.  Though it was greatly dwarfed by the new library, it was certainly the more distinguished of the two.

I had thirty-five miles more of nerve-racking traffic to Fort Collins before I could head off into the peace of the flatlands.  Half-way there I was treated to an array of public sculptures in Loveland.  There was a tacky strain of hearts painted by local artists, another imitation of the Cows of Chicago, but also some most worthwhile original sculptures as well.  The centerpiece was a monstrous "Seawitch" with a price tag of $96,000 on it.

Fort Collins had also outgrown its Carnegie, which was now the "Community Creative Center."  It was in a large park where the new library, similar to the one in Longmont, now resided.  The old and new made nice companions, though there was no comparison in which had the greater dignity.

My route out of town away from the setting sun was just a couple blocks over on Mulberry.  I continued my battle with the traffic for four miles until Interstate 25 and then suddenly I had the road all to myself, my first tranquil cycling since coming down out of the mountains into Colorado Springs.  There were a few fields of corn ready for harvest that I thought I could camp amongst, but the ground was hard and rutted.  Mostly the landscape was grasslands of dried and withered vegetation barely fit for a few stray cattle.  I strained to spot the buffalo that once dominated the landscape, but they were long gone. The only trees were around the occasional homestead. 

Just before dark I was fortunate to come upon a strand of trees along a creek that provided the privacy I was seeking.   They were beyond a barbed wore fence, but a gate had no lock on it nor a "No trespassing" sign.  I only needed to lift a loop of wire over a post to gain entry to as fine of a campsite as I could want.  There were dried cow patties in the field, but no cows to be seen, just a few squawking magpies in the trees who were either welcoming or protesting my presence.  They soon quieted and I had a solid, uninterrupted sleep.