Saturday, November 26, 2011

Home Stretch

Friends: One question all touring cyclists get used to being asked is, "How many miles do you ride a day?" My answer is an off-handed, "Oh, about 80, depending on the conditions, but I know that if need to I can always do 100."

I had a chance to put that to the test once again on Thanksgiving, when I began the day a little over 100 miles from home and the invitation to a Thanksgiving dinner with a reader of the blog and 24 of his vegetarian friends, none of whom I had met. It would be a mild challenge to arrive before dark with less than ten hours of light, but it was a challenge I heartily welcomed, making for a fine home stretch run after another fine tour.

I had had occasional email correspondence with Ross over the years, so I somewhat knew him, but was happy for the opportunity to finally meet him, as well as to share in a feast with a group of interesting folk, a great final travel experience. Ross had tried to arrange a visit for me with his mother in Fargo, North Dakota last month when I was riding route two across the top of the country, but it hadn't worked out. I was happy for his persistence.

I set my alarm for 6:30 and was on the road by sunrise at seven after camping behind a dumpster at a construction site east of LaSalle on route six just south of Interstate 80. There was a nightmarish non-stop bumper-to-bumper river of headlights on the interstate the evening before, but it had slowed to a trickle by morning. Fortunately it was far enough away I couldn't hear it, nor was it close enough to be a distraction as I pedaled along, as had Interstate 44 right next to Historic Route 66 earlier in the trip in Missouri.

I had two last Carnegies to pay homage to, the first in Marseilles, after about an hour. An old codger, who told me he was living in a building dating to 1903, two years older than the Carnegie, let me know I was just a block away. He also gave me directions to the laundromat, a block down and a block over, where I hoped to give myself a wash.

The Carnegie identified itself with PVBLIC LIBRARY over its entry and above that a nice light fixture and 1905. The entry to the fine tan brick building was given an additional air of majesty with a pair of globe lights on pedestals and a flagpole and planters. It had had a small addition behind it, not detracting at all from its prominence as the most distinguished looking building in the town.

The laundromat was open and I had it all to myself. I took out my nearly frozen bottle of honey and ran hot water over it, while I washed, giving it a chance to soften up enough so I could squeeze it out without giving myself carpal tunnel. I had enough bread and peanut butter left to make myself three sandwiches, finishing off both, almost enough fuel to get me home, along with a few oatmeal cookies I had left.

I had less success finding the Carnegie in Morris, as it had been torn down, though it took me a while to get confirmation of that finally at the town's police station. A Vietnamese women at a open hair dresser across the street knew nothing about it, nor did two people smoking out on the porch of their house nor a young women at a convenience store.

I was squandering time, but I could not give up on my quest. It would be the last of sixteen Carnegies I had searched out in Illinois in the past six days. I hadn't found them all, as besides the ones in Springfield and Pekin and Morris that had been torn down, the one in Greenview never existed, as I had gotten it confused with Greenville, one hundred miles to the south. But I at least had a nice conversation with a cyclist in Greenview who had ridden RAGBRAI and was signed up for the annual three day tour of the Finger Lakes in northern Wisconsin this June. I could have pitched my tent in his back yard if I had wanted.

Even though the Carnegie in Springfield had been torn down nearly 40 years ago, I felt like I knew it better than any of the Carnegies I did see, as I spent an hour in the new library's history room paging through several folders of articles tracing the history of the library. Springfield was a thriving city of 30,000 people when its Carnegie was built in 1904 with a grant of $75,000, just one of 52 of the 1,689 Carnegies built in the US with a grant of more than $50,000. Most grants were $10,000.

It had been an architectural monstrosity, in a style derisively called Carnegie Rococo with a mixture of marble and columns in at least 16 architectural styles. It was said that, "Any architect who saw it has practically thrown up." It was built to accommodate 40,000 books. When it opened it had 35,000 books and was soon overwhelmed. By 1940 more than 135,000 volumes were crammed into the building.

I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt trying to find the Carnegies in Alton and Peoria. The one in Alton was actually in the adjoining community of Upper Alton, above the Mississippi, and was on the campus of the dental school of Southern Illinois University. It was now a biomedical library after starting out as the library for Shurtleff University. It retained "Carnegie Library" on its red brick facade flanked by two pillars.

I arrived in Peoria at 7:30 am after my night in a warehouse. I was lucky to find a bushy-bearded fellow beside a van that appeared to be his home outside the library in the heart of the city who knew that this wasn't the site of the Carnegie, but rather it was a couple miles away. My ride took me past the Cubs' dazzling Triple A minor league stadium that seats 8,000 and past a street named for Richard Pryor, born in Peoria. The Carnegie was identified as the Lincoln Branch Peoria Public Library. The four-pillared building sat on a slight rise in the middle of a couple square block park that it had all to itself. Hidden behind it was a vast addition. It was closed, as the old building was undergoing a vast restoration.

After Alton, the first of my Carnegies after crossing the Mississippi, there were still functioning Carnegies in Jerseyville, Carrollton, Winchester and Jacksonville, each with its own charm and personality that gave me a glow upon making their acquaintance. As interesting as any of them though was the Carnegie in Chillicothe, as it was now a used book store--Waxwing Books with a website of the same name listing some of its 30,000 titles and including a photo of its proprietors, the Popps, Richard and Wendy, out front of the building. They bought the building in 2005 just after it went on the market. They had just moved to Peoria, 17 miles to the south, after discovering South Dakota wasn't such a good place for a book store. They had relatives in Peoria and decided to relocate there. Shortly after they arrived, the Carnegie became available. They couldn't have been happier with their good fortune.

Fifty miles after Chillicothe I had a run of three Carnegies within five miles in Spring Valley, Peru and LaSalle, the tightest cluster I have ever encountered. The one in Peru likewise now housed a business, this one Video Services offering VHS duplicating and DVD transfers. The new library in Peru though still honored Carnegie with his standard portrait holding an open book on his lap. Those in Spring Valley and LaSalle had both doubled in size with virtual clones of their originals added alongside.

The librarian at LaSalle was a true Carnegie enthusiast. She went on and on sharing anecdotes of the library, telling me about its small reading room with a fireplace that they dared not use and advising me to make sure to give a look to a couple of cases of over 200 clocks all manufactured in LaSalle. As I slipped away to prowl about she said, "If you have any more questions come back. I'm on the circ desk until we close."

All these Carnegies were on my mind after I left Morris and closed in on Joliet for my final forty mile run into Chicago. From Joliet I thought I'd take route 171 on into Chicago as it passed through Lemont, home of Christian Vande Velde, where I'd paid him a visit two years ago (see the October 1, 2009 entry for a full report). I wouldn't barge in on him, but I imagined I might catch him out on a training ride or perhaps a run to the store for some last minute Thanksgiving fixings. I was wearing one of the jerseys he had given me, but unfortunately the near freezing temperatures had it buried under a sweater and a vest. Otherwise if one of his friends or relatives had seen the jersey, they might have been curious enough to stop and ask if I was a friend of Christian's and perhaps invited me over to their gathering. I pedaled merrily along fueled with fantasies of sharing a Thanksgiving Day meal with a Tour de France hero and his family.

When I came to Joliet I began to see signs telling me I was back on Historic Route 66, a special Joliet version saying "Kicks on 66" in honor of the song about Route 66. Joliet even had a Kicks on 66 Visitor Center. Since I had ridden 66 for over a hundred miles in Missouri, I couldn't resist the lure of following those signs all the way back to Chicago, even though that wouldn't take me through Lemont. I began to regret that decision though about 15 miles later when Historic 66 took me on Interstate 55 for a couple of miles. The entry ramp had no signs barring bicyclists, and even if it had, I would have ignored them for such a short stretch. I had a wide wide shoulder all to myself and had to negotiate only one exit ramp before escaping.

Not only was it meaningful for me to be riding Route 66 once again, it was also meaningful that before Joliet I had crossed the Illinois and Michigan Canal, as my riding partner on those first Route 66 miles, Jim Redd, The Don, had written a book on the I and M Canal back in 1993 called "The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Contemporary Perspective in Essays and Photographs."

As I closed in on my century, I was on schedule to arrive at Ross' apartment in down town Chicago on State Street just a few blocks south of the Harold Washington Library, where several copies of Jim's book can be found, before dark at 4:30. The traffic was minimal as I headed in on Ogden, then turned on Roosevelt, taking me me past perhaps the most unsettling sight I saw during these travels--a Best Buy with a block long line of people, some in tents, waiting for its Black Friday opening, and a Channel Seven news truck parked nearby.

Ross said his gathering would be at the fourth floor hospitality room in his building. When I arrived everyone was already seated at one long table. I didn't mind at all that dinner had already started. I was somewhat concerned that I might have to stand around on tired legs and make conversation when I desperately needed to get off my feet after having ridden 103 miles in the past nine-and-a-half hours. Ross gave me a grand introduction, followed by applause. Then I hit the buffet table and collapsed into a chair.

There were quite a few cyclists among the vegetarians beside Ross. One was a former San Francisco bicycle messenger. He was presently working as a salesman, but missing the messengering. I could give him all the ins and outs on messengering in Chicago. He had resisted it, under the assumption that it wasn't as lucrative as in San Francisco, but I assured him if he worked hard enough, it could be.

His sister, presently on sabbatical from college, had just bought a bike and was eager to start riding after a several year absence. Ross and her brother were heaping all sorts of advice on her, especially to be patient with it if it took her awhile to get used to her seat, or if she was initially intimidated by traffic. I didn't have much to say.

I've learned over the years that either one has it in them to like cycling or one doesn't. There isn't much I can say to convince anyone that the bicycle is the answer to all their troubles, though I know it is. Their conversion has to come from within. I let my life speak for itself. They were impressed by my devotion to the bicycle and didn't seem to regard me as some sort of kook. I've inspired a few over the years to take to the bike or to give touring a try, but many of those for just a short period, after initially promising to be a fellow zealot. A bad incident or bad weather can quickly turn them back into an unbeliever and back to their car dependence, renouncing what they had at first embraced with great and extreme fervor, almost regarding me as a messiah in their gratitude for the great joy and freedom the bicycle had at first brought them.

Ross is a strong advocate of the bike though without the mania of a television evangelist. He's taken the crusade to wherever he is, whether in Chicago or Indiana, where he once owned a pharmacy, or traveling or wintering in Florida. He still has a hint of his North Dakota accent and maintains the easy-going demeanor of someone who grew up in a non-urban environment. His emails always close with a quote or two extolling the virtues of the bicycle. One of my favorites is one of his own: "A bicycle gets you there and so much more. There is always the thin edge of danger to keep you in the moment and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again; potholes are personal. You feel like a kid again while getting fit and strong."

That's as good a close as I can give to another great tour. Though it was only three-and-a-half weeks and less than 1,500 miles and not far from home, it was as satisfying as any of those of months and months and thousands and thousands of miles in some distant land. The point is to spend hours and hours day after day regarding the world from over my handlebars freed of all earthly concerns other than the basics while reveling in the beauty of the countryside and the goodness of its people, and that I achieved. I can't get back to it soon enough.

Later, George

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