Friends: As I closed in on the Mississippi and the mythical dividing line between the Western US and the Eastern, I had one final flurry of flashbacks to my previous incarnation as a Pony Express rider as I romped along as if I was desperate to make it to the next outpost and a fresh horse.
I can't be certain that I was among the couple hundred or so young men who served as riders for the short-lived service, but I do know that I would have wanted to have been one. It is as good an explanation for the present life that has chosen me as any, only wishing to be out all day riding my bike long distances in wide open spaces. It could well be that the taste I got of it wasn't enough, when the telegraph put an end to the service in October of 1861, less than 18 months after it started.
There were 120 initial riders covering the 1,900 mile route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California with outposts every ten miles, the distance a horse could ride at a full gallop. It took ten days for a packet of messages to complete the route. We riders couldn't weigh more than 125 pounds. We rode 75 to 100 miles at a time. Our pay was a fantastic $25 a week, considerably more than the dollar a week the average laborer earned in those days. As with the bicycle messengering, I didn't care what I was paid. It only mattered that I got to be astride a horse all day riding all out. What I did after the service was curtailed I know not, but I am having a great life this time around reliving that experience.
Crossing into Wisconsin was almost like crossing from one culture to another. Suddenly there were businesses everywhere catering to the tourist culture--antique stores and bed and breakfasts and quaint cafes. The small towns were dotted with shops for souvenir hunters.
Lacrosse is such a beer town that one of the breweries had a statue out front of the man known as the inventor and king of beer--the Belgian Gamrinus. He was adorned with a crown and a bright red robe holding a sword in one hand and a stein of beer in the other, upraised, toasting all those who came by. A sign on the brewery proclaimed, "We don't aim to make the most beer...only the best."
I have encountered even more friendliness in Wisconsin than on the other side of the Mississippi. Out West people always seemed a tad wary at the approach of a stranger. In other times their hand would be drawn to their pistol until they were certain the desperado on the bike or horse came in peace. But the West also offered a more overt friendliness from those who recognized me immediately as an unthreatening sort and were curious to learn about me, frequently offering a gift.
As I circled around Richland Center this morning in search of its Carnegie Library no one cringed when I drew up along side them asking for directions. I had pleasant conversations with a bicyclist, a woman retrieving her road side garbage can, a man in camouflage walking his dog and a woman on her porch drinking a cup of coffee. It was Rockwellian small-town America at its finest.
I needed guidance as the Carnegie had burned down a few years ago. Joni Mitchell could write a song about it, as it is now a church parking lot. It had already been replaced as the town library and was vacant when it burned down.
The day before I had another disappointing Carnegie experience. The Carnegie in Viroqua had an addition that made it completely unidentifiable as a Carnegie. At least the interior of the old portion retained its majesty with the high ceilings and fine wood work and original long wooden desks and the original checkout counter complete with tiny drawers. Along side the standard portrait of Carnegie paging through a book on his lap was a painting of the library as it had been in all its magnificence.
Muscoda does not have a Carnegie library, but the municipal building it shares is adorned by a mural with bicyclists and canoeists. My last library in Minnesota, in the small town of Houston, also was graced with an eye-catching mural of bookshelves. There was no mistaking it was the library. Quite a few other non-Carnegies have had personalities and peculiarities that made them a delight. The New Ulm library in Minnesota, a river town, rented life jackets.
Next up is the Carnegie in Platteville, forty miles south of here, former pre-season training camp for the Bears. I will relive another of my lives there, my time as a football fanatic. I biked there in 1986 from Chicago on my way up to the Boundary Waters for a week of canoeing with several friends, back before I was a Carnegie fanatic.
It will be less than 200 miles back to Chicago. With the full moon I could make it in one go. I rode into the dark last night with its bright illumination and easy forest camping whenever I felt the inclination. A pair of Amish families in horse carriages added to the ambiance. They had headlights they could turn on when traffic came along. The full moon shined its full approval, not wanting me to stop riding.