Friends: I left Charleston fourteen days ago with sizzling mid-summer temperatures in the 90s and arrived in Chicago with winter nipping at my heels. The message board outside McCormack Place along Lake Michigan gave a temperature of 48 degrees late yesterday afternoon as I passed by. The temperature in my tent last night was truly wintry--in the 30s. I've needed tights and gloves the last two days.
I wouldn't have minded the cold so much if it hadn't been accompanied by a brisk northerly wind, the exact direction I was headed up the western border of Indiana for a last few Carnegie libraries. Saturday's wind bringing the plunge in temperature was well-nigh gale-force, holding me to eight to nine miles per hour. I actually quit riding with 90 minutes of daylight remaining after managing just 60 miles, unable to pass up a rare clump of trees in the wide-open farm country of northern Indiana. I quit early hoping the wind would abate the next day and also to conserve energy.
The wind relented a bit, but it was still a battle to average eleven miles per hour for my final 93 miles. It was my longest day on the bike since I left Telluride over three weeks ago. I put in eight-and-a-half hours of riding time over eleven hours--two hours more than any other day of these travels. If I hadn't been intent on getting home in time for my luncheon with the Israeli ambassador, I would have taken an extra day.
But still, it was a most satisfying final day on the bike, especially riding in to the city from the south along the Lake Front bike path. It is the most glorious way to arrive in Chicago, bar none. Once one turns on to the bicycle path around 72nd street, it begins a fabulous ten-mile stretch along Lake Michigan with a towering forest of skyscrapers in the distance. It is as fine an entrance to any city anywhere. The parkland along the lake was in exceptional form, dotted with long stretches of re-introduced indigenous prairie grasses flourishing as they once did well before white man despoiled the scene.
For once I did not object to urban sprawl. It couldn't come soon enough, as I knew it would somewhat blunt the wind. The sprawl began in Cedar City, Indiana, 29 miles before I began my ten mile jaunt along the lake, turning off at Navy Pier for the final four miles inland to my apartment, cutting through the northern fringe of the downtown, my stomping grounds during my nearly two decades of bike messengering. It gave me another adrenalin rush of fond memories.
Sunday was just a one Carnegie day after hitting eleven the previous three days. The finale came in Brook, twelve miles beyond my last campsite. I entered Brook from the east on highway 16 after turning off 55. There was hardly any traffic or anyone out and about early Sunday morning. Brook was a small enough town, I had no fear of not being able to find the library on my own.
As I approached the town's couple block business district my heart gave its usual leap of delight when I spotted a majestic building up on the right on a corner lot in a park that had to be the Carnegie. There was no sign nor the usual "Library" or "Public Library" or "Free Library" or "Carnegie Library" chiseled into its front facade, but it had the solid, stately stature of a Carnegie. It was only when I took a ride around the building and saw its addition did a sign confirm that it was what I was looking for. The addition was of the same brick as the original, a perfect match.
The same couldn't be said of Fowler's addition to its Carnegie that I visited the afternoon before along route 55 after Attica. Its unsightly glassy attachment was at least hidden from the street side view of the library, now known as the Benton County Library. Its original cornerstone acknowledged the building as a "gift of Andrew Carnegie." Not too many of the Indiana libraries put Carneige on the exterior of their building, though most have his portrait hanging somewhere inside.
The town of Oxford, ten miles before Fowler, hadn't grown enough to require an expansion to its humble Carnegie across from its town park in the center of town. The library did not want to be used as a babysitting service. A sign on its door warned, "Children under the age of seven must be accompanied by an adult or responsible teen fourteen or older."
There was little Sunday traffic on the tiny rural roads until it was church time. It was still very minimal, as the churches have greatly thinned out since leaving the Bible Belt a couple days ago. For 800 miles or so through the Carolina's and Tennessee and Kentucky I passed a church every few miles. Their competition for customers was reflected not in two-for-one deals or 99 cent specials, but in their witty sermon titles on their message boards.
I have missed them, having to rely instead on the usually mundane town mottoes for my amusement. With a paucity of fresh sermon titles to occupy me I reflected back on some of my favorites. Two of them were airline related, something I appreciate--"If God is Your Copilot, Switch Seats" and "All of Our Seats Come With a First Class Service." Word play and puns are quite common--"A Church is a Gift from God, Assembly Required," "Having Truth Decay? Brush Up on Your Bible." There was a whole slew of Internet related titles--"Prayer, the Original Wireless Connection," "We Need to Talk, No Texting Allowed," "God Sent the First 'Text' Message, It's Called the Bible."
As in my previous rides through the Bible Belt I have marveled at how clever and original these sermon titles can be. I know that country preachers are known for their homespun, down-home wisdom, but I remained suspicious that someone other than these small town preachers were coming up with these titles. It seemed likely there must be some sort of think tank or Christian World advertising agency like a Leo Burnett or Hallmark Greeting Company employing a team of writers concocting and distributing them.
The marvel is that I have never seen the same title twice in the thousands of miles I have biked through the Bible Belt seeing hundreds of titles. The lack of duplication only added to my suspicions that those who distribute them are very careful to parcel them out over a long enough period of time and distance to prevent one from seeing the same title. If there weren't a well-coordinated distribution system, it would seem likely that preachers would be stealing or sharing titles. So many of them are simply too good for a one-time use only.
As I pondered many of the titles I realized that a surprising number of them had a ring of familiarity to them. It finally dawned on me that they had been filched and adapted from "The Cyclist's Coda," a secret, supposedly divinely inspired book about the bicycle as the messiah, detailing the coming carmageddon and how the bicycle will be man's salvation and embraced by all. It is divided into chapters from Genesis to Revelation, tracing the history of the bicycle and how it will ultimately save mankind. I have never actually seen a copy of the book, nor even met anyone who has, just a few other ardent cyclists who have heard about it.
I first learned about it from a Japanese cyclist in 1989 high in the Andes of Peru. He hoped I might know of it, as he was in search of it himself. He quoted quite a few passages from the book that carried the certitude of the beatitudes and commandments. The next time was five years later in Nepal from a German cyclist. He too, as the several others I have met who know of it, could enthusiastically quote chapter titles and assorted assurances, but like the Japanese cyclist his knowledge was only a sketchy third or fourth hand. Meeting someone who has actually seen the book, or might even have a copy, is what keeps me roaming the world on my bicycle, though simply knowing that it exists is enough, and provides all the inspiration I need to have given myself up to the bicycle.
But someone in one of these Christian sermon title factories must have come up with a copy of "The Cyclist's Coda," or have better than second-hand information about it, as many of the sermon titles have been adapted from it. "Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak" was taken from "Seven Days Without Riding Your Bike Makes One Weak." "Get on Your Knees and Fight Like a Real Man," was originally "Get On Your Bike and Travel Like a Real Man." "Autumn Leaves, Jesus Doesn't" was "Autumn Leaves, Your Bicycle Doesn't."
"Forgiveness is God's Command," was taken from "Riding Your Bike Is God's Command." "Home Improvement, Take Your Family to Church," is, of course, "Home Improvement, Take Your Family on a Bicycle Ride." "Directions to Heaven, Turn Right and Keep Straight," is an adaption of "Directions to Heaven, Get on Your Bicycle and Ride Everywhere." "If You Can't Stand the Heat, Believe in Jesus," was originally "If You Can't Stand the Heat, Ride Your Bicycle." "Warning: Jesus is Coming, R U Ready," came from "The Day of the Bicycle is Coming, Are You Ready." "Jesus Saves" was taken from "The Bicycle Saves."
There are quite a few more, but I'll leave it at that. It was nice to have solved one mystery, but not the mystery that keeps me bicycling. Carmageddon is not likely to happen in my lifetime, though it is assuring to know that it will.
One of the things I was rarely able to take advantage of in these travels was a hearty pancake breakfast in a small town diner. Most small town diners have gone the way of the do-do. The few that remain rarely served breakfast. A stack of flapjacks provides me with enough energy to get through the day, supplemented with snacks, until I retreat to my tent for the night and ingest another huge dose of calories.
As much as the food, I missed the conversation of locals complaining about the weather and politicians and the economy and flirting with the waitress. I would have liked to have heard the rant from the farmer who had a sign posted in his field decoding Obama as the acronym--One Bad Ass Mistake America. I would have asked those local diners about the sermon titles and if they had any theories on where they came from.
Maybe I'll be luckier on my next trip into the American heartland and find more local morning cafes. The only two I stumbled upon were an embarrassment. I was fed a Belgian waffle in a trendy little place and was bothered through the whole meal by a classic empty-headed, whiny Southern woman who defined obesity and kept asking me about my travels as I was trying to read a book.
In another, as I dined on a paltry plate of biscuits and gravy, a 40-year old Mexican gauchely teased the 50-year old waitress. "What color is your hair?" he asked. "Didn't it used to be darker."
"Leave my hair alone," she snapped. "I've been up since 1:30."
But he wouldn't leave her hair alone and persisted enough that I almost intervened. I wanted to hear authentic locals talking about genuine issues, not phonies trying to make conversation.
But as always, I found refuge on my bike and will continue to. I have barely two weeks to regroup and then its off to Turkey and the Middle East with David from Telluride. Not only will we visit Turkey's Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark is believed to have come to rest, but we will continue on to Mount Sinai in Egypt where the Ten Commandments were delivered. We will no doubt learn much along the way.