Wednesday, November 2, 2011

St. Clair, Missouri

Friends: Its been nine years since I joined Jim Redd, also known as Don Jaime or The Don, for a bike ride from Minneapolis to Chicago. We had a rollicking fine time and have wanted to join forces for another ride ever since. Jim has come close to dropping everything and linking up with me in the middle of a ride several times, but having a wife and running a business doesn't make it easy for him to get away. I even flew down to Ecuador, where he owns a bed and breakfast, six years ago to do some touring together, but he was too busy to get away and I had to make a circuit of Ecuador on my own. The details can be found of those travels by going to March of 2005 on the blog.

I heard from him once again as I was bicycling across Montana last month, wishing he was along for the ride and wondering if we could do something together in the near future. I never want a ride to end, so I suggested he fly up from Ecuador for a ride through the Ozarks after I returned. Jim had to find a night manager to assume his duties at his hotel, and managed to get up to Chicago two weeks after I returned from my last trip. Two weeks was plenty of time for me to catch up on everything I needed to in Chicago after being gone for six of the previous seven months.

We couldn't settle on a route and we still haven't, even though we're a day into our ride after taking Amtrak from Chicago to St. Louis. Jim is riding a twenty-nine inch mountain bike and would like to do some single track riding.  I, as always, would like to search out a few Carnegies. Jim was eager to see a Carnegie himself after reading my enthusiastic descriptions of the many I have come upon in my travels, though he admitted to a slight leeriness what with "Car" the first three letters of Carnegie's name. Jim is an autophobe of the first order. He's been car-free for years. On those rare occasions when he's had to rent a car, he leaves it to his wife to drive it.

There are thirty-three Carnegies in Missouri and just four in Arkansas. Most of those in Missouri are in the northern half of the state. There is a huge black hole in the dispersal of Carnegies across the U.S. in the Ozarks. In times past those living in the Ozarks have been suspicious of too much education. The region has one of the highest school drop-out rates in the country. Communities had to apply for a Carnegie. There wasn't much interest in the Ozarks for a library when Carnegie made available funds for libraries in the early 1900s to just about anyone who asked for one who could fulfill a few requirements--providing the land near the center of a town and an annual fund of 10% of what he provided to sustain it. He's responsible for 1,698 libraries throughout the U.S. There is one in every state except Alaska and Delaware.

There were seven built in St. Louis from a grant of one million dollars for a main library and six branches. I wasn't too confident that any of them would still be around, but miraculously two of them were on our route out of the city on Lafayette Road leading us to Historic Route 66 that we wanted to follow at least for a spell. The first was just a few blocks beyond Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals just claimed their eleventh World Series. We gave the Stan Musial statue out front a salute as we rode past. No one was about, nor hardly anywhere on the fringes of the downtown. The same was true with the Soulard Carnegie, a now closed down building, the front door padlocked. It still retained its majesty. Jim pointed out various features of its architectural grandeur, and then took a few photos.

Less then a mile away, when Lafayette intersected the main thoroughfare of Jefferson, was another Carnegie, the Barr Branch, still functioning as a library and without the need of any additions. Chiseled into the side of the entryway was "Fund for Building Given by Andrew Carnegie." The interior was a bright canary yellow, but had no portrait of Carnegie as many do, though it was no requirement.

We couldn't believe our good fortune at this unexpected dose of Carnegies. Our fortune wasn't so good though when Lafayette came to an end and we had to take Manchester. The four-lane highway was thronged with traffic, even in the pre-rush hour. Jim's head was spinning, especially since he'd had only a few hours of sleep, arising before five a.m. to catch our seven a.m. train. After an hour we were still in the thick of sprawl and traffic, over twenty miles from the down town. Ten miles later it was still a nightmare. There seemed to be no alternative.

When we saw a sign for Castlewood State Park we decided to make it our camp site for the night even though there was nearly two hours of light left and we were eager to escape the brain-numbing sprawl of the metropolis. Jim, having come for a small town in Ecuador, simply couldn't take it any more. It was three miles off the road and turned out to be for day use only. We'd just have to wild camp in the forest when it cleared out. It was surprisingly packed though with cars and bicyclists. Jim was thrilled to see it was laced with single track trails. He stripped his two panniers from his bike to get a taste before we went in search of a camp site when it got closer to dark.

While I was waiting, a cyclist of about our vintage came up and asked if I was looking for a place to stay. He said he knew there was no camping in the park and offered his house, just a couple miles away. That was our third and perhaps greatest stroke of good fortune of the day along with finding some Carnegies and Jim getting an unexpected dose of single track. He said he was training for a San Diego to South Carolina ride in April. His previous longest ride was from St. Louis to Green Bay along with the friend he would be riding with coast-to-coast. He was eager to talk to a couple of fellow touring cyclists.

He called his wife to alert her that he'd be dragging home a couple of wayward touring cyclists. Kim said that he'd be traveling a little differently than Jim and I, staying in hotels on a budget of one hundred dollars a day. He expected his trip to take fifty days. He and his friend already had their hotels plotted out, about seventy-five miles apart. He had hired a trainer to condition him for the ride. He was supposed to be doing intervals today. He was a fairly recent convert to the bicycle, beginning riding about six years ago when he was 54. Now he was a full-fledged adherent and an avid Tour de France fan. He said he had never been a sports fan of any sort until recently, not even following the Olympics. Now when the Tour de France is on, he spends hours every day glued to the television. He can hardly believe his transformation into a sports fan.

His wife Pam is also a devotee of the bike, though not quite to his extent. She is one of the few bicycle advocates in the state of Missouri. They both bemoaned how unfriendly Missouri is to bicyclists. They knew well as they had last lived in Portland, Oregon and before that California, two hotbeds of cycling.

Kim and Pam were slightly confused about Jim's name. I had mentioned to Kim that Jim was known as Don Jaime in Ecuador, but without making clear that "Don" was an honorific term " applied to anyone in a respectable position in Latin America. They both continually referred to Jim as "Don," which would be like referring to Queen Elizabeth as "Queen" if she had been around. Neither Jim nor I bothered to correct them. It wasn't until the following morning when we were all well rested that I finally straightened them out.

Though Jim and I were exhausted and would have been asleep by eight if we had camped, we happily stayed up well beyond that talking all manner of cycling. It was Jim's first experience of being honored as a touring cyclist. I know of some cyclists who make a practice of fishing for such accommodations every night. It is nice every once in a while, but it can become tedious having to recount the same stories night after night. One certainly earns one's shower and food. But we were truly blessed to have had this evening with Don and Pam. They couldn't have been more welcoming. When we mentioned that Jim acquired his bed and breakfast in Ecuador seven years ago to escape Bush America, they told us we were lucky to have them as hosts, as they were the only non-Republicans in the county. The gigantic cherry on top of all their kindnesses was they had a Delorme atlas of Missouri, a highly detailed manual of every road in the state. Jim worships them. He was thrilled to be able to give it a look and even more thrilled when they said we could have it. Jim pulled out a twenty dollar bill, its cover price,to pay for it, but they wouldn't take it.

Jim is serving as translator on our travels so far. Having grown up in Alabama he is much more familiar with the slight Southern lingo we have already encountered. Back in Gray Summit when we asked how far it was to the next town with a library, we were told it was in "Sinclair, about fifteen miles away." We couldn't find a "Sinclair" on the map. Then Jim realized that the woman had said St. Clair. The library here in St. Clair is beside the funeral parlor. Jim said, "Perfect. You can read until you die."

As always, Jim has me chuckling with his nearly every wisecrack and musing. He said to be sure to mention that the barbecued chicken at the Gray Summit convenience store was as good as any he had ever had. He wasn't sure how much he approved of the store though, as it had a shelf of food labeled "Car Snacks."

"Where are the Bike Snacks?" he demanded of the sales clerk.

(For more of Jim's wit and pontifications check out his commentary on our previous trip in July of 2002 on the blog.)

Later, George

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