Friends: For years my long-time friend Chris has been reading snippets from my touring dispatches and sharing incidents from my travels with his three children, now aged eleven to seventeen, whether they wanted to hear them or not. Will, the youngest, wasn't entirely certain I actually existed, but rather was simply some alter-ego of his cycling-obsessed Dad, no more real than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
So Chris was quite happy when I passed through St. Louis and had time to pay a visit, not only to see me, but also so that he could introduce me to his children and verify that there really was a George the Cyclist. I was equally pleased to meet up with Chris once again and also his parents, Ellwood and Robin, who if things had been slightly different would have been my brother and sister-in-law. Robin is the sister of Crissy, my fellow free-spirit, whose life's we shared for nearly three decades until she succumbed to cancer several years ago. Robin was so endeared to her kid sister, as was anyone who knew her, that she named her first-born after her, adding extra significance to my friendship with Chris.
Robin and Ellwood couldn't be closer or more genuine friends than if we were legally bound by some official vows and paperwork. The same can be said of Chris. We don't see each other often enough, though we do stay very much in touch through the Internet. Before I was unveiled to Chris's children I was able to first drop by the office where Ellwood and Chris maintain their investment firm and begin catching up. Then it was dinner with Robin and Ellwood before venturing over to Chris' home, two doors down from home run king Mark McGuire.
I hadn't had time to shower or even change clothes, so I still had on my adventurer's costume of tights and cycling jersey, attesting to my authenticity. Besides Chris' family of five, his wife's parents had just arrived from Connecticut for the Thanksgiving week. They too had been subjected to Tales of George. They weren't skeptical of my existence, but maybe to the extent of my travels. They've done their share of world traveling, most recently to India several times visiting grandchildren and a daughter and son-in-law who taught there the past three years until moving to Senegal to do the same. I was eager to hear of their experiences, especially to learn if Senegal would make a worthy next destination for me.
As we sat around the family's grand twelve foot long dining room table Robin kept trying to keep me on topic as I talked about being attacked by a wild boar in France and knife-wielding thugs in South Africa and other stories. It was all too easy to get sidetracked. Somehow I was talking about bicycling in Cuba with my friend Dwight, an eco-terrorist who is wanted in six countries for single-handedly sinking a whaling ship in Norway and a drift-netter in Taiwan and escaping from Mexico City's maximum security prison, one of only two persons to accomplish the feat, the other being Pancho Villa.
"Whoa," Chris exclaimed. "How did you ever meet him?," then asked his name, so he could google him. When I said, "Dwight Worker," Robin commented, "There's a picture of the two of you on your Facebook page, isn't there." She was right about that. Dwight is soon to become even more famous, as the National Geographic cable network is going to feature him in an hour segment of its "Locked Up Abroad" series.
The stories flowed fast and furious like an untapped oil well. I didn't have to fake my passion or enthusiasm recounting my experiences thanks to a sincerely interested audience. No need to win them over. All the while Chris' aspiring-photographer daughter was shooting away and Chris was holding up his telephone recording my ravings. It wasn't an entirely novel experience, as I've experienced similar semi-celebrity status in foreign lands in places where Westerners are rarely seen and the population is well-equipped with telephones that have recording devices. It was quite common in newly affluent China, with everyone wanting to try out their new toys.
It was a Friday night, so the kids didn't have to devote themselves to homework or get to bed too early. Will though had to keep his fingers limber on the piano in preparation for a recital the next morning. If not for the early hour of the recital, Chris could have biked with me across the Mississippi to Alton. Instead he just had time enough to accompany me to within five miles of The Arch, nearly twenty miles from his home in the western suburbs of the city.
We were joined by one of Chris' regular Saturday morning riding mates, an avid racer who was wearing a Tour of Missouri cycling jersey. Christian Vande Velde had won the first week-long Tour of Missouri several years ago. Chris' friend had heard plenty about me too. He greeted me saying, "Any friend of Christian Vande Velde is a friend of mine." As we rode along he said he had learned the phrase "plus vite" from reading my blog. He was indeed a close reader, as I could well remember the one time I had mentioned that phrase when a teen-aged boy yelled it at me as I was climbing a steep mountain during The Tour de France, telling me to go faster. Our ride was a fine capper to what seemed like much, much more than a mere day in St. Louis with as fine a group of friends as one could wish for.
Two days into Illinois and I've already added six Carnegies to my Life List. At one point in Carnegie's dispersal of libraries across America, Illinois had more than any other state. It was eventually overtaken by Indiana and California, but remains in third place tied with New York and Iowa with 106. With luck I'll be able to visit ten or so more in the next two hundred miles. The library here in Athens is not one of them. It is less than ten years old and was constructed in part with funds donated by McDonald's. Part of the deal was that the library had to exhibit a Ronald McDonald. He is sitting out on one of the two benches in front of the library. The librarian said, "The kids love him."