Friday, October 14, 2011

Marengo, Illinois

Friends: The best laugh I get every day is whenever I see a sign for camping. That's hilarious. There is camping everywhere. Two nights ago it was in the cemetery of Belmont, Wisconsin, the state's first capital. Cemeteries are usually a last resort and so it was this night.

It had been a day of rain, though it had finally let up. Another night in a corn field amongst the tall withered stalks seemed my most likely camping spot until I happened upon the cemetery. The corn field would have been muddy and soggy.  The cemetery offered a well-drained grass mattress, much preferred, and a few towering pine trees for shelter in case the rain resumed.

Cemeteries are my prime source of water when cycling in France. Rare is it to find a water spigot though in American cemeteries. The French cemeteries are all concrete and crammed with graves, not conducive at all for camping. They are quite picturesque, invariably surrounded by a distinctive high stone wall that can be seen in the distance, immediately alerting me of an oasis ahead, as if it were a well in a desert surrounded by date trees. American small town cemeteries are quite drab in comparison, a scattering of mundane, stubby tombstones with little character and not very well maintained. They at least offer grassy expanses for camping. One of the reasons the French cemeteries offer water is that relatives pay regular, almost weekly, visits to spiff up the graves of loved ones, all monuments of a sort that they take pride in.

My final campsite of these travels last night was behind a closed down factory on the outskirts of Rockford, the third largest city in Illinois with 150,000 residents, just behind Aurora. I was caught by the dark. The full moon was late in arriving over the trees in the distance, so I couldn't quite make it out into the countryside. But the camping was as fine as if I were in an isolated forest.

Rockford offered my final Carnegie of these travels, number 28, seven less than one a day. It dated to 1902 and wasn't recognizable as a Carnegie at all with a grandiose glass expansion in 1966 totally swallowing up the original library. The third floor historical research room had a magnificent large painting of the original library. If it hadn't been getting dark, I could have spent a couple hours reading up on its history. Like many of the towns I have passed through, downtown Rockford was appealing enough to tempt me to return.

Twenty-five miles north, just across the border, the college town of Beloit once had a Carnegie, but no more. When the city outgrew its Carnegie and couldn't expand it, the library took over the town's post office for a few decades. When it outgrew that, it moved into a former JC Penney's department store in a mall on the outskirts of the city, one of the most interesting libraries I have encountered. It was huge with lots of large windows letting in tons of light overlooking the Rock River.

Platteville is another town with a Carnegie that, like Rockford, had a charm that had me thinking I wouldn't mind hanging out there for a few days pretending I was a resident. The library now houses the architectural and engineering firm Southwest Design Associates. Not unsurprisingly it has superbly maintained the strikingly beautiful Tudor style building with intricate brickwork. Like just about every Carnegie, it is not just another building. It is on a corner facing the town's large park. Scattered all over Platteville are historical markers. Sixty of the town's buildings have been declared historical landmarks. On one is a mural of nine significant figures in the city's past. One of them is Walter Payton, in remembrance of his time spent there when this university town of 11,000 residents was the site of the Bear's pre-season training camp.

Darlington, 25 miles east of Platteville, also had a Carnegie built in the Tudor style. It is now the Lafayette County Historical Society, though retaining "Carnegie Free Library" on its front. It too faces a large park. Right next door is the Johnson Public Library, built in 2000. Benches at its entry are dedicated to its donors Erwin W. and Phyllis K. Johnson. Just beyond the large park is the majestic County Court House, an extravaganza comparable to the most grand of French City Halls. The French would also appreciate the picnic table on its front lawn.

The last few days many of the small towns I have passed through have had murals on the sides of buildings. Many are so detailed that I have to stop and give them a closer look. They are another of the many delights of pedaling-paced travel. My heart is continually buoyed by such small discoveries. I paused to sit on a bench a farmer had placed a little ways off the road that had a spectacular view of the hilly countryside. Included in the view were a cowboy cut-out and an eagle on a pedestal and a bird-feeder he had added to his panorama. He and his wife and others had doubtlessly spent countless joyous hours gazing out and contemplating the wondrous scenery.

Later, George

1 comment:

T.C. O'Rourke said...

Always a nice read, George.