Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chester, Illinois

Friends: About 80 miles south of St. Louis, just beyond the bridge crossing the Mississippi to Chester, Illinois stands a statue of Popeye the Sailor Man. A mile later at the main intersection in Chester is a statue of Bluto. A little further is a statue of Wimpy. Continue on and there is another of Olive Oyl and Sweet Pea. Come back in a few years and there will be even more scattered about town.

Chester is the hometown of their creator, Elzie Segar. Olive Oyl came first in 1919, then Popeye ten years later. Chester is so proud of them all it hosts an annual Popeye Picnic and Parade the week after Labor Day that attracts fans from all over the world. Two of Popeye's biggest fans moved here from Memphis 14 years ago and opened Spinach Can Collectibles and a Popeye Museum. They started a fan club that has nearly 2,000 members. Their website is http://www.popeyethesailor.com/. They are spearheading the effort to erect another dozen statues around town.

Their store is crammed with Popeye trinkets and memorabilia and oddities. Perhaps the oddest of them all is a copy of Segar's death certificate hanging on a wall crammed with newspaper clippings celebrating the sailor man. Segar died in Santa Monica, California in 1938 at the age of 44. The cause of death on the certificate is porial cirrhosis. The owners of the store said he was known to drink a lot and that he was a good friend of Clark Gable's, as if that too might have had something to do with his death. A poster of the Popeye movie from 1980 by Robert Altman hangs on another wall, even though the proprietors say they and Popeye fans didn't much care for it. They said the town has invited Robin Williams, who played Popeye, to its annual weekend of Popeye festivities, but he has declined, as he doesn't wish to be remembered for that role. There were plans to invite Shelley Duvall, who played Olive Oyl, until it was learned she had ballooned to 300 pounds. The organizers feared that the many children who attend the festival wouldn't be able to accept her as Olive Oyl.

The museum/store resides in the town's former opera house. I wondered what might be playing at the local movie theater. "It closed down years ago," the woman said. "We're only a town of 5,000 people. I know the sign outside of town lists the population as 8,400, but that includes everybody at the Menard penitentiary and the mental institution. There used to be a movie theater 20 miles away, but that one closed too."

The Chester library had the grandeur of a Carnegie. I asked the young woman at the circulation desk if it was. "We have a couple people a week stop in and ask that question," she said, " but I'm sorry, we're not." She recommended dining at the nearby Ol' Farmhouse. The menu continued the Popeye theme with Popeye Spanish Omelet, Popeye Spinach Supreme Salad, Olive Oyl Chef Salad, Sweet Pea's Cup of Soup, and The Big Brutus Burger. The Baptist Church next door was mobbed for a Wednesday evening presentation of Heaven's Gate and Hell's Fury.

I wasn't drawn to Chester as a Popeye fan, it was simply on the route along the Mississippi that will take my companion Waydell and I to Cairo, Illinois and then east to Alabama and Mississippi. The starting point for this bike tour was St. Louis after a five-and-a-half hour train ride from Chicago. We took the jump by train as Waydell's company, Towers Productions, can only spare her for two weeks. Our prime objective is to experience the Deep South in the days before the election, so we wanted to skip the northern two-thirds of Illinois to hasten our arrival.

Waydell and I have biked thousands of miles together over the years from one end of the Chicago metropolis to the other, visiting movie theaters and other sites, but never on a tour other than a three-day Thanksgiving weekend ride of 225 miles two years ago to Indiana and Michigan. We wild-camped both nights, so it offered Waydell a sip of the touring experience and confirmed our compatibility as traveling companions. Never before have I set out on a tour with a friend with so few doubts about how well we'd get along. Waydell and I ride at a similar pace and easily accommodate each other's whims. We're two days into this tour and all is as I hoped it would be.

One of Waydell's passions is ice cream. She had hoped to sample some of St. Louis' famed frozen custard. Before we left the St. Louis train depot we asked where we could find some. We were immediately told Ted Drewes was the place to go. The threesome we asked couldn't give us precise directions, but they said there were several stores and we'd probably find one on our way out of town. As we passed through the downtown of St. Louis and closed in on The Arch and the bridge to Illinois and hadn't come upon a Ted Drewes or any place offering frozen custard, we stopped to ask someone else where we might find some. That person too immediately recommended Ted Drewes, but said there were only two stores and the nearest was several miles away and not on our route. As much as Waydell was eager to try the local frozen custard, she deferred going that much out of our way for it. The locals responded with such fervor to Ted Drewes we googled it at the first library we stopped at. It is a genuine St. Louis institution, written up at Wikipedia.

When we crossed over the Eads Bridge to East St. Louis, we expected to come upon Illinois State Route 3 heading south along the river. After a mile, as the road led us through a run-down neighborhood, we figured we better ask for directions. We passed by a group of young men lingering outside a dive of a small liquor/grocery store. We waited until we saw a young woman sitting on a porch tending to a couple of small children. We had greatly overshot the road we were looking for, as it had crossed under the bridge. We had to double all the way back and then discovered we did not have easy access to it there. We asked another woman for directions. She pointed us towards the back gate of East St. Louis Southern Illinois University. After we passed through the small university we had to make a left and then a right. Then she warned us to be careful, as we would be passing through a rough neighborhood. She told us not to stop for any reason or to talk to anyone. She probably would have been horrified to hear where we had already been and who we talked to.

We've been hearing the same thing about Cairo, that it is a dangerous place and that we should be very careful and not spend any longer there than necessary. It only makes us all the more eager to see it. It is 100 miles away. If we get an early enough start tomorrow and the winds are favorable, we might be able to make it in one day, fulfilling early on one of Waydell's goals for this trip--a 100-mile day. Her best previous effort was 99 miles on an all-day into the night ride around Chicago's perimeter. When she arrived home near midnight, she didn't care to circle around for a final mile, preferring it to be a genuine 100 miles.

The only other stated goal of Waydell's, at least that she has told me, is not to go more than one day without a shower. Not having a shower the two nights that we wild-camped on our previous tour was her only complaint. So tonight we are staying in a hotel after wild-camping last night. We had hoped to get a shower at a nearby campground, but the campground was closed, forcing us to splurge on a hotel. We had designs on another campground 34 miles from here, but we were delayed by several detours, one to Fort de Chartres and another by missing a turn, so we couldn't have reached it before dark. Our directional mishaps have not concerned us yet, as we are enjoying the pleasant biking and our long-time desire to finally be off on a long ride together.

Later, George

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