Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Crete, Illinois

Friends: I crossed back into Illinois over the fairly stagnant Wabash River in the southern part of the state. Just after the governor's welcome a sign warned, "$2,000 fine for bootlegging cigarettes." Across Indiana, stores advertised cigarettes for the "Absolute legal minimum price," something over three dollars. In Kentucky certain local brands were selling for $1.79, dramatically less than the six dollar a pack prices in Chicago, not that I indulge.

After entering Illinois at the small town of Hutsonville I continued west two miles to Highway 1, turned right, and began a 250-mile home stretch run straight north along the eastern border of the state. Highway 1 eventually turns into Halsted Street, which runs virtually the length of Chicago, passing within eight blocks of my apartment. It was flat, wide open country of mostly cornfields. A few fields still had the now brown, withered stalks still standing that had provided more than adequate shelter for my tent and I through Indiana and Ohio on the first leg of this trip before I ducked down into southeast Ohio and West Virginia and began forest camping.

I gave extra welcome to whatever clusters of trees I came upon now, as they offered a break from the northerly winds that the pathetic looking corn stalks couldn't. It was the first serious head wind I had encountered in my month on the road, slowing my speed by several miles per hour and forcing me to increase my effort. I had chosen this route as my final stretch, as it took me through Paris, Ill., not so much for another Paris but because the librarian in Paris, Kentucky mentioned that the Paris, Ill. library was a Carnegie, as was his.

Carnegie libraries were one of the themes of these travels. After I encountered several in Indiana and Ohio, I began searching them out. There were quite a few more than I realized. According to Wikipedia, Carnegie funded the construction of 2,509 libraries between 1883 and 1929 all over the U.S. and the world. All but two states, Alaska and Delaware, have at least one Carnegie library. Of the 1,689 Carnegies built in the U.S., Indiana had the most with 165. California was next with 142, then Ohio with 111 followed by Illinois and New York with 106.

Not all the Carnegies are still standing or are still used as libraries. The one in Oberlin, Ohio is now used for the college's music department. The one in Cambridge, Ohio stands empty. Many of the Carnegies I visited have had additions over the years, some two or three. They are all distinctively grand, stately buildings, almost immediately recognizable as a Carnegie, though each has its own personality and flair. At the time of their construction, they were usually the most prominent building in a town--genuine temples honoring literature. They have aged very well and still retain their majesty, many adorned with columns and domes and fine stone work.

When I began inquiring about the history of the library in Paris, Kentucky, the librarian invited me back to his office to show me his collection of postcards of the library, all enclosed in protective plastic. Several had postmarks from the early 1900s, shortly after the library opened in 1904. He said whenever a postcard of his library appears on Ebay, he buys it.

He was very interested in my bike travels. When he was studying to be a librarian at a college in western Pennsylvania twenty-five years and twenty-five pounds ago, he intended to spend his summer vacation bicycling around the region visiting relatives. He had his route planned and all the equipment for the trip ready to go, but had to cancel at the last minute when he discovered he needed to take a course that summer if he wanted to graduate a year ahead of schedule. It is something he regrets not having done. Now he has hopes of bicycling to visit a brother in Louisville one hundred miles away.

He was the second person on this trip who told me such a story. The director of Winston-Salem's film festival, a younger man who served as the publicist for Chicago's film festival for two years several years ago, was all set to bicycle coast-to-coast across the U.S. after he lost his job with the Chicago Tribune. But he was offered a job out in Hollywood just before he was to set out that he couldn't turn down. Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein fame tells a similar story in the book "All the President's Men." He had wanted to bike coast-to-coast but pursued his journalism instead.

The Carnegie library in Paris, Ill., a most vibrant community of 9,000 residents, was one of the few that actually had Carnegie chiseled into its facade. Most are anonymous. Only a few even acknowledge Carnegie with his portrait hanging somewhere within their confines. The Paris, Ill. library was the only one I came across with the date of its construction in Roman numerals, MCMIV. The Carnegie in Ridge Farm, a town of just nine hundred, twenty miles north of Paris on Highway 1, was a rare one modestly constructed of red brick. Most were of white stone. The Carnegie in Bedford, Indiana, the"Limestone Capital of the World," was expectantly constructed of limestone. The Carnegie in Marietta, Ohio, a river town with character on the Ohio River just across from West Virginia, was perched on a former Indian mound in a residential area of the city.

A very tempting bicycle tour could be made of searching out all the Carnegies in a state or a multi-state tour visiting a Carnegie in each state. Such an idea has been festering ever since I came upon a Carnegie library in Texas a couple falls ago and then again this past summer in Scotland. Libraries are always at the heart of my U.S. travels, as they were in Iceland and Scandinavia and the British Isles, places that were also rich in public libraries.

I often drop in on two or three a day, even before they offered the Internet. They always provide a pleasant, warm sanctuary. Only twice on this tour have the librarians been less than hospitable. The library in Brownstone, Ind. was the only one that wanted money for the Internet and this library here in Crete initially wanted to limit me to fifteen minutes on the computer until I explained my situation. The young man helping me said he had to ask his supervisor though, for permission to let me have an hour, even though only two of the dozen computers were in use.

Rare is it that I have to ask someone directions to the local library when I'm passing through a town, as I'll invariably come upon the universal sign of a book being held up to be read with an arrow pointing the way. But if I do need to ask, I can count on getting an answer from whomever I ask. The only times I have failed is if the person does not live there, or once in Nevada when I asked a road construction worker and he responded, "Do I look like I'd know where the library is." When I reached the center of Crete and hadn't come upon the sign for the library I asked a pedestrian, a husky guy with a hooded sweatshirt. He told me it was a mile up the road on the right, and added, rather testily, "But it doesn't have a pay phone."

Danville, with a population of 36,000, was the largest city along Highway 1 back to Chicago. Every block or so through the center of the city there was a small sign attached to a light pole with the portrait of someone born in Danville who went on to achieve some sort of fame. Among them were Dick Van Dyke, Zeke Bratkowski of the Green Bay Packers and an astronaut by the name of Tanner. Danville wasn't the only town on Highway 1 expressing pride. The small town of Westville, shortly before Danville, mentioned it hosted the first night football game in 1928. A church in St Anne, a ways beyond Danville, laid claim to being the first shrine in the US.

As I neared the end of this trip, I wasn't disappointed at all that this had been my fall trip rather than a more glamorous ride from Istanbul to Cairo, as I had been contemplating. It was wonderful to see Ken and Laura and their delightful young children Iain and Clara in Oberlin and Tomas in Greensboro and Lyndon and Stephanie in Winston-Salem. I had wanted to visit all of them for years.

It was also nice to have finally gotten to the Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, Ohio and also to have experienced the spectacular fall foliage of West Virginia and all the grandiose Halloween decorations in the small towns along the way. Kentucky and southern Indiana also provided unexpected superior cycling. My only regret was that I didn't bring along my down sleeping bag, forcing me to wear long pants and a sweater and a wool cap most nights in my sleeping bag, rated to only about 45 degrees. Otherwise, the camping was top-notch. It was a thoroughly satisfying month on the bike. I'd heartily recommend it to all. I'll have to do it again some time.

Later, George

Monday, November 5, 2007

Paris, Illinois

Friends: Biking through the Bible Belt I have been barraged by non-stop proselytizing, none of it though by the decent and kindly folk who have taken an interest in me. Not a single conversation diverted to the subject of religion, not even to ask if I was a believer or had been saved or if Allah was my lord. Rather, the proselytizing has come in the fairly benign form of advertising on the message boards in front of just about each of the many, many churches lining the roads I've been riding, giving sermon titles and other pronouncements.

Religion is easily the most predominant industry in these parts. Like any business, they need customers, and as any good businessman knows, it is important to advertise and to promote whatever he might be selling. The churches rival the fast food franchises with all their message boards trying to lure buyers with bargains (Whoppers 2 for $3) or some new product (Spicey Chicken Sandwich $1) or news (McRib Is Back). Some churches merely use their message boards to announce the times of their services or mention a rummage sale, but most offer much more, trying to turn heads and entice them into becoming a customer. The less imaginative merely post some verse from the Bible, but many strain to be clever and witty, not only to capture the attention and stir the thought of someone passing by, but also to make them think, "Hey, whoever came up with that could be fun and could perhaps be the pastor or congregation for me."

There is lots of competition out there, and the churches well know it. Some of the postings are stodgy, old-school, generic, tired, recycled cliches little more interesting than the Bible verses, but others are most contemporary keeping up with the lingo of the times, such as, "Not all answers can be found at google." Many are meant to give a chuckle, some combining humor with a sting--See you Sunday, unless you have something better to do." Some are wacky enough to qualify for a David Letterman Top Ten List--"Went to see Dad, back to see you later--Jesus." Many refer to that Jesus fellow--"Got Jesus? It's Hell without him," "Jesus--The equal opportunity saver," "Be an organ donor, give your heart to Jesus."

Some give warning--"Pray now or pay later," or threaten--"Life has many choices. Eternity has two. What is yours?" Some scold--"Quit griping about your church. If it was perfect you couldn't belong." Some rhyme--"Where God guides, He provides." Some speak of crime--"Sin carried far enough becomes its own punishment." Some advise--"Go out on a limb, that's where the fruit is." Some pose questions--"Where will you be if Christ comes today?," "Do you spend your time loving others or judging others?" Some are seasonal--"The best Ghost is the Holy Ghost." Some are double entendres,"Are you helping with the harvest?" Some ask hot, burning questions--"Is Hell real?" Some are libelous--"Try our Sundays, they're better than Baskin-Robbins." Some are provocative--"It takes guts to be a sinner." Some are definitive--"God said it. I believe it. That settles it." Some are inspiring--"A mighty fortress is our God." Some are Swedenbourgian--"Faith goes where eyes can't see." Some are puzzling--"Does temperance grow on your tree?"

One church felt the need to respond to AA's 12-step program--"The steps to happiness are the church steps." Some give mathematical formulas--"God's arithmetic--love, joy and peace multiply when you divide with others." Some advise where to look--"Feeling Down? Look Upward," "Keep looking up, God is looking down." And there are plenty of general advice--"Feed your faith and doubt will starve to death," "If a sibling of Christ has a problem, don't gossip, pray." Some offer words of consolation--"There is no problem when you have the answer," "Real peace comes from being in God's will." In rain-starved North Carolina one church simply announced, "Praying for rain." Another was more specific--"Let us pray for lots of gentle rain."

My travels coincided with Pastor Appreciation Week, so I had a minimal reprieve from the barrage that week, as many churches opted to put "We Appreciate Our Pastor" or "Thank You Pastor So and So" on their message board. There were so many churches along one road in eastern Kentucky, one every four or five miles, there was a special road sign warning there was a turn-off to a church ahead. I was never far from the religious tenor of the Belt. One town's welcome said, "Attend a church of your choice and be square all week and come 'round on Sunday." Businesses that posted their hours didn't simply say "Closed on Sunday," but might say, "Closed to give thanks."

With many churches under construction or expansion, religion is clearly a hearty growth industry. Besides the many simple, humble one-room school house-type churches, there were the occasional magnificent Taj Mahal edifices, often on a hill, surrounded by vast parking lots and sprawling, meticulously manicured lawns. They looked so nice that parishioners might have to remove their shoes before entering. I kept hoping I'd encounter some church or some message board pronouncement so enticing at service time, that I would be drawn within and might discover a Sam Kinnison of a preacher, the deceased screaming comedian who got his start on the preaching circuit. There was clearly a lot of talent drawn to the profession.

I might not have paid so much attention to the church message boards if I had had bumper stickers to occupy my thought and to be on the alert for, but they have become an extreme rarity. They were once virtual standard issue, providing a continual stream of amusement and insight into what were the issues of the day. Back in the era of the bumper sticker, when it was rare to see a vehicle without at least one to let all know what was important to its owner and what that owner thought was amusing, owning a car almost had some justification. One felt the need, if not obligation, to put some bumper sticker that spoke his mind on his vehicle. Mentioning a clever bumper sticker was a frequent topic of conversation and stand-up routines. The demise of bumper stickers might be partially blamed on answering machines, as their cute messages seemed to suck a lot of creativity from those who composed bumper stickers.

The passing of the bumper sticker is another sad fact of our homogenizing world and the crushing of individuality, as well as the fear that prevails. Some would say it is an indication that people no longer care enough about anything to make an issue of it, not even to express pride in their child the honor student or that they have a baby or an alien on board. The decline of the bumper sticker might be traced to the sticker, "My student can beat up your honor student." It said all about the violent and vengeful nature of our times, and reflected the fear people have to mention anything they care about lest it push someone's ignite button. In this trigger-happy society it doesn't take much to set off someone sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic listening to the bile of radio talk shows with hosts and callers venting their rage. A simmering and stewing driver trapped in traffic staring at a bumper sticker promoting something abhorrent to him, whether it simply be the call letters of a radio station he associates with evil, or something innocuous as "Keep your laws off my body," might turn him crazed, especially if that vehicle was a tad slow to respond to a light turning green or might have earlier slipped in front of him.

There are related reasons for the demise of the bumper sticker. One is that bumper stickers make it easy to identify and track down a motorist. Since anyone can be involved in a mishap they'd prefer not to have to be held accountable for, it is best to remain as anonymous as one can. Another reason is there are all too many who regard their automobile as a sacred object and wouldn't dream of desecrating it with a stuck-on object, even one that said, "Pray Now or Pay Later."

In all the miles I have biked the past month and thousands of vehicles who have wagged their rears in my face there was one that hearkened back to the good 'ol days of bumper sticker mania. Its brave and defiant driver had adorned her car with stickers approving gay rights and disapproving of war and one that read "Vegetarians Taste Better." The car belonged to my friend Stephanie in Winston-Salem. Her husband Lyndon's van was sticker-free, however. And he said he always felt like slumping low whenever he had to drive Stephanie's car, as he feared anyone seeing him would question his masculinity.

Later, George

Friday, November 2, 2007

Brownstown, Indiana

Friends: As I sat eating the lunch special (meat loaf and mashed potatoes) at a small cafe/general store in rural Kentucky that advertised "Plate Lunches," a series of seeming regulars, stopping in for a pack of cigarettes or cup of coffee or the special, paused to have a word with me, almost as if the odd site of my loaded bike out front had lured them in.

Some gave advice on where I ought to cross the Ohio River just a few miles away to Indiana. The options were either via the town of Madison or the Markland Dam Bridge. Most recommended Markland, as there was a river boat casino there, and as one said, "If you was lucky enough not to have been run off the road around here you ought to hit the jackpot with your luck." The boat was on the Indiana side, as Kentucky does not allow casinos. It has been voted down several times and most likely will lose again Tuesday. "The church-going folk are agin' it," one guy explained, "And there are more of them than us that want it. But it don't hardly matter, as they can't keep us from crossin' the bridge to Indiana. It's just a shame all our money is goin' to Indiana when we could use it here."

A tattoo parlor owner also lamented the influence of the church-goers. He was telling the guy taking everyone's money at the cash register that he was looking to open up another tattoo parlor because he knew the demand was there. "I know of eight people who are giving tattoos out of their houses, which is against the law," he said. "But the health inspectors can't go after 'em unless someone becomes infected and files a complaint, which just doesn't happen. If they get infected, they don't want to admit it. I've been lookin' all over to open another place, but its hard to find a location. People don't want a tattoo parlor in their neighborhood. You know their reputation--tattoos, drugs, whores, crime, they all go together, or at least that's what folks around here think, especially the religious types." An older guy in bib overalls sitting at the table next to me said, "Ain't nobody gonna put a tattoo on me. I get stuck enough by needles."

Conversation also drifted to the topic of tobacco. After some 100 miles of riding past horse farms in the central part of the state around Lexington, my final 50 miles of Kentucky was through tobacco country. It had been harvested and was presently hanging in partially open and well-ventilated barns, the large tobacco leaves darkening to a deep reddish brown. The "housing of the tobacco" can take a couple of months before it is fully cured. Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds buy up the bulk of the crop. It goes for about $1.50 a pound, down from two dollars just a couple years ago when federal subsidies were cut off. The price has also declined since the tobacco companies started buying it from China at a cheaper price. Carrolltown, the largest city in the area, on the Ohio River, where all the local buying and selling takes place, once had one of the three largest tobacco festivals in the world. It is still held every October, but with tobacco production way down in the area, it is no longer the grand, celebrated event it once was.

I had had so many interruptions in my meal, I was still eating when the lunch hour had pretty much past, allowing the cook to take a break and join me in conversation as she sat at an adjoining table with her meal. She had heard I was heading back to Chicago. She said she had been there once to attend a gathering of Long John Silver managers. She used to run the one in Carrolltown for 14 years until new management took over. She flew up to Chicago from Lexington, a 45-minute flight. She said she couldn't believe so many people could live in one place. She doesn't miss her days at Long John Silver at all. It was a job of many headaches. One of the biggest was having to hire a new high school kid every week or so. She was well into her 60s now. Working in this small cafe was like going into semi-retirement. As I was on my way she commented, "Thanks for coming in Sweetie. Come on by again."

Later, George

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Paris, Kentucky

Friends: I've wild-camped in some precarious and perilous spots over the years--on the fringe of a tiger preserve in India, downriver from a dam in New Zealand after a 5.9 earthquake as the region was being evacuated in fears the dam might break, at the top of a run-away truck ramp on the California coast, in the Botanical Gardens of Melbourne, at the trail head just off the road in the rebel territory of Laos, anywhere in Colombia, on a military firing range in France--but, some would say, none was more foolhardy than where I camped last night, in a Kentucky small town cemetery on Halloween.

I've camped in cemeteries before and was unscathed by the experience, but never on the night of the spooks and goblins. I didn't intend to cemetery-camp on Halloween, but I was down to my last few minutes of light, and the road the last couple of miles had been lined with small farmsteads, fenced and with dogs on the prowl. I was closing in on the town of Irvine, less than four miles away. But I had not a worry, just a heightened sense of expectation of what hallowed piece of turf awaited me that I could call my own for this night.

I knew something would turn up, as it always has, hundreds, no thousands of times, over the years. Half an hour before I was passing through Boone National Forest with deluxe wild-camping left and right, when I began an unanticipated two-mile, 20-minute climb. It was imperative I complete the climb, and especially the descent, before dark, as making that descent in the morning's 30-degree temperatures would have left my fingers and toes brittle enough from the semi-arctic 30 mile per hour wind-chill to break off. The climb had come as a surprise, as now that I was more than 100 miles beyond the mountains of Appalachia the terrain had been merely rolling and mostly flat on roads that lazily meandered along rivers and train lines. The cycling was so superlative and I was gobbling up the miles so effortlessly, I was spending more time pedaling than I had intended, and by the time I came to the cemetery I'd amassed an unexpected 100 miles for the day, my most in the 1,500 miles I've come since leaving Chicago three weeks ago.

I was in no rush to be anywhere, though if I wanted I could set my eyes on making it to Indianapolis by Sunday in time for the "Game of the Millennium" between the Patriots and the Colts. But I just wanted to take my time and enjoy the rural beauty and tranquility and linger a little longer at the cafes and libraries I sought for warmth, and to eavesdrop on the locals and read Paul Theroux's excellent travel book "Pillars of Hercules" about an 18-month journey around the perimeter of the Mediterranean from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Middle East and across the top of Africa to Morocco. He was enjoying it and was much less grouchy than he can be. It stirred many fond travel memories of my own, doubling my present travel pleasures by being in two places at once, here in Kentucky and over there. Each evening I was looking forward to reading more in my tent, but not so much as to quit riding early when the riding was as good as it was this day of Halloween.

When I came upon the cemetery I unhesitatingly seized upon it for my evening's campsite. It was a classic--unfenced, up a hill, with a few scattered trees amongst the graves. Back in a corner was a nice level spot beside a hefty tree that would partially shield my tent and provide a lean-to for my bike. There was a house across the street and another beside the cemetery below me surrounded by trees. I was fairly well-secluded, but I was slightly concerned about lighting my candle, as it gave a soft glow to my tent. If I didn't need the warmth it provided I would have stuck with my headlamp for my sole illumination.

As I began my dinner of sardine sandwiches and a can of baked beans, a dog below began barking, letting me know that he knew I was there, but not so frantically as to arouse the curiosity or concern of its owners. Still, I wished he'd desist, lest he betray my presence. When I called it a night a couple hours after dark, I knew there was the possibility the cemetery might attract some Halloween pranksters, but it didn't prevent me from promptly drifting off to sleep. If anyone came around, ethereal or otherwise, I wasn't aware of it. It was another great campsite after another great day on the bike. And I was happy, as always, to awake to my tires still fully inflated.

Kentucky has been treating me well since I crossed into it at the summit of Black Mountain, the highest point in the state at 3,500 feet. I reached it after a seven-mile climb up a road known as The Lonely Pine Trail. It could have been just The Lonely Trail, as I had it mostly to my self. It linked former coal mining towns that were now more dead than alive with the passing of the industry in this region. Not even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in one of the small towns was attracting any one. But it made for fine cycling, especially the gradual descent after the initial steep plunge of several miles through a narrow valley past countless uninhabited two-story wooden houses that at one time were most respectable.

Kentucky has abounded with refreshing and heartening small towns allowed to be themselves, unmarred by cloned tract-house developments or gated communities on their fringes or glaring eye-sores of someone's dream house. There is no evidence of wealthy city-dwellers building quaint refuges from the urban jungle for themselves, so common in Wisconsin and Michigan and out west near ski resorts and quaint western towns. Not too many of the towns have libraries, but I still manage to come upon one or two a day. Several have offered their discards free for the taking. I picked up Studs Turkel's memoirs written thirty years ago and a book about athletes who overcame more than the usual adversity to achieve great success. It was written before the Lance story. Riding and reading, two pleasurable pastimes.

Later, George