Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bloomington, Indiana

I took advantage of the Katy Bicycle Trail for a few miles after crossing the Missouri River at Jefferson City, the capitol of Missouri.  The bridge, too, was bicycle friendly with a recently added bike lane attached to the side of the bridge, the only one for miles around. At 237 miles, the Katy Trail is the nation's longest rails-to-trails conversion.  It runs nearly the length of the state.  Its surface is crushed limestone.  It provided a tranquil alternative to the road, but after a few miles I realized I could be rolling along with a little less resistance on the highway alongside it.  There wasn't much traffic on it, and the scenery was no less picturesque, so there was no reason to shy away from riding along with the big dogs.

If it had been hotter I may have preferred the quiet and the shade of the trail's tree cover to the faster speed of the pavement, but I was still pressed for time to reach Bloomington by Saturday night, so being able to saunter along at sixteen miles per hour compared to twelve was much more attractive.  However, after about twenty miles the even railway grade of the trail drew me back when the highway ran into a series of steep climbs over a barrage of bluffs.

When the road turned flat once again, as I neared Hermann, I abandoned the bikeway for the roadway. It would have been a very pleasant trail if I weren't under deadline.  It followed the route of Lewis and Clark for some of its miles.  I didn't encounter another cyclist.  There were periodic posts citing nine rules for cyclists.  They were all basic common sense. The first two rules were, "Be courteous to all users" and "Wear a helmet."

The next morning, a few miles beyond Hermann, the river valley narrowed once again and the road turned into a roller coaster of steep ups and downs, three or four per mile.  Worse than the time loss was the punishment my legs were taking. They were quickly being drained of energy.  I had to average one hundred and ten miles a day for the next three days and that would be hard to do if the road continued to be so demanding.  The hills would have been great for training, but not for making time.  After seven miles of unrelenting sawtooth terrain with no outlet to the flat of the Katy Trail, I left the River route and took highway U to Warrentown, twelve miles north.  There was still some climbing to do before I escaped the bluffs, but  the road soon mercifully flattened as it headed east towards the Mississippi.

I had ridden over ninety miles when I crossed into Illinois at Alton less than an hour before dark.  I hadn't stopped at a library all day.  I had only passed through two towns with libraries, Warrentown and St. Charles, and both required a detour of a couple miles or more to reach their libraries, a sacrifice I wasn't willing to make.  I started towards the St. Charles library, north of St. Louis, but turned back when I saw a huge hill ahead.  I had visited the Carnegie library in Alton a year ago on my ride back to Chicago from the Ozarks and had to skip that one as well, as it too was out of my way, so I wasn't able to alert Dwight and Janina as to my progress.  I wanted to assure them that I was still within range of making it to Bloomington by Saturday night, though it was going to be close.  I was becoming more and more single-minded in my determination though.

This wasn't unlike trying to keep up with The Tour de France, except that I had a lot less day light with it getting dark by 7:30 now and earlier every day as the days shortened and I was one hundred miles further east of the setting sun every day.  France in July remained light until ten pm.  I was spending upwards of eight hours a day pedaling in the twelve hours or so of light available to me.  If I didn't have this goal it would have been closer to six hours.

It mostly meant I wasn't reading as much as I would have.  Nor did it allow me time for a breakfast of hotcakes.  I hadn't had a single restaurant meal in two weeks.  It was forcing me to listen to the radio for local color.  That wasn't so easy to come by with all the nationally syndicated programs dominating the air waves.  Often the only local insight I gained was from the commercials.  There was no need for political commercials, as most of the shows were non-stop commercials for the Republicans.  Some commercials though did have a political bent such as the one promoting a gun show.  It warned, "This could be your last chance to stock up on guns if the wrong man is elected president."

Along with the many commercials for firearms ("Buy your ammo from Hardware Hank"), there were quite a few commercials for funeral parlors and small businesses who urged "Buy Local" ("we've got our roots here, not our branches").  Many commercials referred to money as "hard-earned." A favorite phrase was "We've got your back covered."  At times I felt as if a time machine had transported me back several decades. Occasionally I'd catch a station playing old radio shows from the '50s or beyond.   The "Neon Beat" somewhere in Kansas featured Perry Como and Glen Campbell and Nat King Cole and Dean Martin.
I didn't much mind all the extra time I was spending on the bike, as that is where I most long to be.  I just wish I had been a little more conditioned to riding than I was after barely riding 150 miles during the month I was in Telluride. I ride at least 2,500 miles in the month before The Tour de France.  I wasn't riding any harder than I normally would. I'd tried to keep my exertion just below the point where my heart beat becomes noticeable. I was trying to hold myself to a speed that I could maintain for as long as I wished.  It was simply a matter of resting before I was tired and eating before I was hungry, two of Velocio's Seven Commandments for the touring cyclist.

The road signs weren't well marked through Alton and I went astray for the only time of the trip, costing me six miles and about twenty-five minutes of riding time.  Those could be crucial.  After backtracking and returning to route 140, I just made it out into the countryside by dark.  Once again I somewhat blindly pushed through the brush into a clump of trees for a place to camp hoping I wasn't rubbing up against any poison ivy.

Two Carnegies awaited me on my 150-mile swath across southern Illinois, one more than I came upon in my 300 miles across Missouri.  The Missouri Carnegie was in Jefferson City, just a few blocks from its grand, domed capitol building.  It was an equally striking building, limestone with four pillars flanking its entrance and a balcony above and a pair of gargoyles. It now serves as office space for the Cole County Assessor's office a block from the new glassy library, a much less impressive building that one wouldn't even give a second glance.

It was similar to my previous Carnegie, the last of the six on my route across Kansas.  It was in Ottawa and likewise was no longer used as a library and greatly upstaged the new dreary library housed in the basement of the City Hall.  As with all the Carnegies, Ottawa's was a building the community could be proud of and beckoned anyone who set eyes on it.  Its exterior had a grandeur that would make anyone wonder if its interior could match it.   It sat in the corner of a large park and could have easily been expanded, but Kansas had little sense of honoring or preserving its past.   At least Ottawa didn't tear down its Carnegie as had McPherson and Great Bend and Lyons.

The Carnegie in Greenville, Illinois was a classic beauty with a domed rotunda to one side of its entrance.  It had not been expanded.  Over the fireplace in the rotunda was an original painting of Carnegie with a book on his lap.  The building itself was branded with "Pubic Library" over its entrance.  A recently added sign out front identified it as a "Carnegie Library."

It was a day later that I passed my second Illinois Carnegie in Robinson, just before the Indiana border.  It was a rare Carnegie that now served as a private residence and also a business.  The owners sold dog food and archery equipment for deer hunting.  A stuffed deer graced its front yard.  The building was in disrepair, the paint peeling on its wooden trim and  weeds growing up along the limestone building.  It was ragged but still retained its magnificence.

I had two final Carnegies in Indiana on my run in to Bloomington and its Carnegie that I had visited the year before, now a historical museum.  The first was in Linton.  It now housed the Carnegie Heritage Arts Center, along with a driving school and a pair of music studios.  Rather than limestone, as is the construction of many in the region from the local quarries, it was constructed of red brick.  It may not have been as regal as some of the Carnegies, but it still had a distinctive, noble presence.

My final Carnegie in Bloomfield, the thirteenth of these travels (two in Colorado, six in Kansas, one in Missouri, two in Illinois and two in Indiana), was also constructed with red brick.  It still served as a library, though it had been doubled in size with a matching red-brick addition.  It was identified as "Carnegie Public Library" across its top with "Erected AD MCLIX" just below.  I reached it an hour before closing time.  I was able to email Janina that I was twenty-seven miles from Bloomington.  I had ridden nearly ninety miles already.  She was on line and emailed me back telling me where to find the key to the house she was staying at if no one was home when I arrived.

Though I had some wind assistance I still had some hills to negotiate.  I energy was ebbing, and I needed to stop half way for a snack, but at least I had no worries of having to push on after dark to meet my Saturday night deadline.  I could finally somewhat relax and not be concerned with having to squeeze as many miles I could into the daylight remaining.  I completely the 1,400 miles in less than fifteen days.  It was as joyous a hug as I have ever received when Janina answered the door.  I arrived just in time for a Greek stew she had prepared for her old college friends Michael and Susan, who would be leaving for Greece in less than a week and would be our hosts for the night before we moved on to Dwight's farm outside of town. 

We gobbled down dinner and then headed off for the last few acts of the nineteenth annual Lotus World Music Festival that had drawn Janina to Bloomington from Chicago.  The festival was started to honor the local musician Quinten Lotus Dickey, who died in 1989.  The three-day event was staged at six venues in downtown Bloomington--two were tents, two were churches and the last two were a movie theater and a large bar.  Hundreds of music fans could range from stage to stage to hear all manner of exotic music--Arabic urban rai, gypsy jazz fusion, Yiddish punk-folk cabaret, contemporary Finnish string music, Portuguese folk pop, Swedish hip-hop and swing, Quebecois a Capella, funky Balkan brass and much much more. 

The musicians were all quite exceptional.  It was hard to leave one act for another, but also hard to stay for more than three or four songs, knowing what else could be sampled. Even though I was utterly exhausted and depleted from my hard ride, I was fully energized by the music and my companions.  Michael had served as a county judge since 1992 and Susan had been a town planner for years.  They seemed to know everyone.  It was a wonderful community event.  Even though Bloomington is home to the 40,000 students of Indiana University, students were a small percentage of the audience.  It was mostly an older crowd.  Between the venues assorted street performers sang and danced.  There were also displays of art and stands selling food and other items. 

Scattered about town were twenty-two painted brain sculptures, Bloomington's version of Chicago's cows from over a decade ago.  They were too spread out for us to see more than a couple.  Even though Janina is an artist herself and reviews art for Chicago's "New City" and other publications, she had no desire to seek out the brains.  She wasn't even an enthusiast of the cows, not recognizing them as legitimate art.

Rather than doing a brain tour Sunday Janina gave me a mini-tour of the campus where she spent some seven years doing post-graduate work in the '70s.  We also took a hike through her favorite woods just outside of town before joining Dwight for dinner along with his girl friend Susan and his good friends Jeff and Marie. 

Dwight had introduced Jeff to bicycle touring.  Since I had introduced Dwight to it some fifteen years ago when he joined me for a two-week ride in Cuba, Jeff had long wanted to meet the mentor of his mentor.  I too was eager to meet Jeff.  He took his first bicycle tour with Dwight two years ago in Thailand.  He enjoyed it so much, he returned on his own the following year. They had gone off for two months, the longest break Jeff had taken from his work.  He is quite an entrepreneur.  He owns five restaurants and a catering business and a brewery and recently acquired a herd of water buffaloes so he can produce his own mozzarella cheese for his pizzas.    He was remarkably down-to-earth and personable and had much to share. 

We were up to nearly midnight remaining at the dining room table basking in the glow of lives well lived, one and all. Dwight is certainly a larger than life character.  He has been a fugitive and an award-winning professor and environmental activist.  He was recently featured on National Geographic's "Locked Up Abroad" series for escaping from Mexico City's maximum security prison in 1975.  But everyone else too had much to offer--Marie from her job at the Kinsey Institute and Susan from her social work and Janina from her teaching.

The great camaraderie spilled over into the next day at breakfast when Jeff returned with a Chinese house guest who had written a book about the Silk Road.  He also brought a slab of bacon from the hogs he raises.  It went nicely with the eggs we gathered from Dwight's chickens and ducks and potatoes from his garden.  The dinner was also largely food from Dwight's extensive gardens.   After breakfast Jeff took us across the street to see his water buffalo and pigs and brewery.  The buffalo were quite curious and were happy to eat sweet grass we handed them from the other side of their electrical fence.

Dwight also gave us a full tour of his farm, starting with his Communist Plot, a few acres of garden that he shares with friends from in town.  It was such a full weekend my previous fifteen days of complete submersion into riding my bike and getting to Bloomington before Janina had to be back in Chicago to her students at Columbia seemed a distant memory. I've had nearly a dozen such visits with Dwight in Bloomington and as always look forward to the next.

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