Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fort Benning, Here I Come

I For years I've been hearing reports from my friend Tim about what an inspiring experience he has every November attending the huge protest of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia.  Since the very first demonstration in 1990, this event has attracted thousands from all over the country to honor the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter who were murdered in El Salvador in 1989 by soldiers that a Congressional task force connected to the School of the Americas.  It has become a Woodstock of the protest movement.  A conference center is even rented during the weekend of the protest in Columbus near Fort Benning for attendees to give workshops on assorted causes.

The protest has yet to close down the School, but it has achieved a name change.  It is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Tim has become one of the linchpins of the protest, arriving early to set up a stage, and recruiting others to attend.  He has also served as the escort for Martin Scheen, a frequent attendee.  I have accompanied Tim on other missions, including a drive to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with a van load of bicycle parts from his Uptown bicycle shop to contribute to a bicycle co-op in New Orleans.  His heart is in the right place on all issues. His first impulse is always to help those in need.  Even if he weren't an accomplished cyclist and dumpster-diver, he'd be someone I'd hold in the highest of esteem.  It is always a privilege to be in his company.

Every year when he returns from Fort Benning full of glowing stories and urges me to join him next year, I tell him, "I will, I will", but every year I'm either not around or have a conflicting obligation.  But, at last, this year I was free to finally make the trip.  When I said "yes," the plan was to make a leisurely 850-mile drive so we could see this and that along the way, as we have done on previous travels.  We'd take our bikes along and do a little exploring when we felt the urge.  It didn't take me more than a day or two though to ask myself, "Why don't you make a bike ride of it?"  Tim couldn't bike, as he'd be driving to Washington D.C. from Fort Benning with his partner Maria to spend Thanksgiving with her brother's family.  She'll be driving down after us with a group of Mennonites, not having as much time as us for an early departure.

One of the allures of biking to Columbus, and possibly back to Chicago, is that it could put me up to 12,000 touring miles for the year, one thousand a month, my best year yet.  It could be my fourth tour of two thousand or more miles in 2014.  I'd already done 2,500 miles in the Philippines, 5,500 miles in France and England, and a two thousand mile from Telluride to Chicago, along with a 550-mile ride from Pittsburgh to Chicago and a two hundred mile ride to Starved Rock and back.  That ought to be enough for any year, but unfortunately not for me.  I am always ready for more.  And it doesn't matter to where.  As Nelson Algren put on his tombstone, "The end is nothing, the road is all."  

Tim was sorry not to have my company for the drive down so suggested he might shadow me in his car, meeting up at Carnegie libraries and trying to wild camp together every so often.  He was in no hurry and could make side trips and hang out in places that caught his fancy, as is his traveling style.  I left a day ahead of him with our first meeting point to be at the Carnegie library in Francisville, Indiana, about one hundred miles from Chicago.

I headed south out of Chicago on Halstead, as I have done many a time.  It turns into Highway One and hugs the Indiana border for over two hundred miles.  It wasn't until I had cycled over thirty miles that I escaped the urban sprawl and came upon my first farmland before Crete, a town with a small town feel and a self-service car wash with the friendly remember "Don't forget to wash behind your ears."  Fields alternated between still standing brown, withered stalks of corn and fields where only stubs remained.  The roadside was littered with kernels of corn that had seeped out of the giant trucks transporting it to wherever it was going.  If one had a vacuum or magnet that only picked up the kernels, they could make a mighty harvest.

Twenty miles beyond Crete I encountered the first of the many memorials that await me to the men who fought in the Civil War in the town of Momence.  I was headed to the Land of Dixie, as signs identifying Highway One as the Dixie Highway reminded me.

The Momence library bore a strong resemblance to a Carnegie.  It was a symmetrical box of a building all on its own a block from the town center.  One mounted a set of stairs to its entry flanked by a pair of pillars.  It had been built in 1912 during the Carnegie era of library building.  But it lacked that extra aura of majesty that the Carnegies radiate.  It had been funded by a local businessman, perhaps inspired by Carnegie.  It was a rare library that had neither WIFI nor restrooms.  The librarian told me I could find both at the nearby Burger King.

I stopped at the Burger King, more to fill my water bottles, than to use the Internet,  I didn't so much need to let Tim know of my progress, as for the first time I was traveling with a cellphone to better stay in touch with Janina.  We have had too many frustrating experiences with Skype and FaceTime to rely on them.  Not only could Tim and I communicate by phone but we could also text.  

Just after the Burger King I crossed the Kankakee River, then turned east to Indiana, seven miles away.  The river was flanked by the thickly forested LaSalle State Fish and Wildlife Area after I crossed into Indiana.  It was near dark and time to look for a place to camp.  I passed the first two entires into the refuge, wishing for a few more miles, before turning in on the third.  I was greeted by a sign saying "No camping or fires."  It was very wet so there was no threat of me starting a fire.  Camping wasn't so amenable either, as the terrain was mostly marshy.  I rode a mile-and-a-half all the way to the river without seeing a place to disappear into. A grassy dike that was a minor roadway, even though there was a barrier and a sign saying "No vehicles," paralleled the river.  I biked a quarter of a mile until I came upon a twist in the road that took me out of view of the road I'd come in on that would hide me a bit.

I had to put on a wool cap and down vest with the temperature in the forties and heading down.  With my sleeping bag draped over my legs I was amply warm as I ate my dinner and read the very first travel book of Jan Morris ("Coast to Coast") written in 1956 after spending a year traveling 70,000 miles around the United States with his family getting to all 48 contiguous states.  I didn't get very far before fading to sleep, but I could tell I was in for another good read.

With not much more than ten hours of daylight this time of the year, I was up and away shortly after first light. I listened to the election returns on my radio as I broke camp.  There were quite a few races I was interested in, but the one that most piqued my interest was the governer's race in Wisconsin, as the Democrat candidate was the wife of the CEO of Trek, Mary Burke. It would have been thrilling to have a bike manufacturer in charge of a state, but unfortunately she failed to unseat the controversial Republican governor, Scott Walker.

I missed a turn to Francisville, not realizing it until I reached Renssalaer.  It added eight miles to my ride, but I had no precise meeting time with Tim and we had no time restraints at this point.  Tim's car was in front of the library.  Francisville was such a small town, even adopting the motto of "A Small Town with a Big Heart," I was surprised to see an addition to its library.  Though it matched its original brick and roof, the glassed-in new entry greatly detracted from what it had been.  It was also marred by the original entry closed down, as it was handicap-unfriendly, and blocked by a bike rack.

The interior of the old building fully retained the warmth of a living room with four comfortable chairs in front of a fireplace with Carnegie's portrait above.  Tim and I had this section of the library all to ourself for 45 minutes until three, when a lady set up shop to tutor local school kids.  The computers were in the newer section of the library.  We studied google earth looking for a place to camp before Monticello, twenty miles south, and our next Carnegie.  We'd join up with the Tippecanoe River in Buffalo, where there looked like some likely spots.  Tim drove on ahead to scout.  When I reached Buffalo he had found a spot through a cemetery along the river among some trees.  We had time for dinner on a picnic table beside the local fire department, then at dark biked on in for another Great Night of Camping together.  


T.C. O'Rourke said...

I loved biking on the empty unmarked blacktop toads cutting through the cornfields south of the southern suburbs, roads claiming to be "Ashland" and "Western" with their itty bitty street signs.

dworker said...

Lovely tale of biking thru the rural midwest. I so enjoy the rural lonliness of it all. And George, please tell me what is the name of the high quality gortex jacket you wear. I need one. I have ridden to school and back every day this year. Today was below freezing, and it felt good. But I do need an all-weather jacket. And I so totally agree with the protests against the school of the American murderers.

george christensen said...

Dwight: It is Arcteryxx, which TC also uses. It has served me brilliantly through a typhoon in Japan and days of cold rain in Scotland. It is not the cheapest but it is the best.