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

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