Monday, October 3, 2016

Rochelle, Illinois

After crossing the Mississippi from the once thriving, but now diminishing city of Clinton, Iowa, to the smaller, but healthier town of Fulton, Illinois, I came upon the first Hillary Clinton lawn sign of these travels and then another and another.  Illinois is a Clinton state even outside of Chicago.  It is also a state whose small towns ardently support their high school football team. There were more signs supporting the "Riverboats"  in Fulton than Clinton signs.  Milledgeville abounded with signs exhorting its team, the "Missils."  Other towns expressed their high school football fervor with TP'ed trees and shop windows with exhortations.

For the first time in four states I was coming upon towns that had an appeal, that had some character and offered a mild enticement to linger for a few hours or days or even to disappear to for a few months to see what life was like in them or to take up a new life as Edward Norton considered in Spike Lee's masterpiece, "The 25th Hour."  Maybe it was because my trip was drawing to a close and I didn't want it to end. But that wasn't entirely true, as Janina, as usual, was drawing me like a strong magnet.  I had hoped to be home by the first of October, making it a three-week ride.  My injury deterred that, but only by a couple of days.

After my return I'll be eager to load our bikes in her car and return to Polo, a town of 2,000, thirty miles from the Mississippi  and one hundred from Chicago.  Not only did it have a pristine Carnegie with a simple "Carnegie" above its entrance,  it was near enough the stunning White Pines State Park to call itself "The Gateway to the Pines."  Polo also distinguished itself with an Islamic Center across the street from the Carnegie, not a sight one often comes upon in rural America.  I was there Sunday morning and there was no one to ask how it came to be there.

It's Carnegie had a small, addition that blended in to its backside to provide an entrance for the handicapped.  The Carnegie in Fulton had done the same thing.  It's gray brick exterior was so well-maintained I wouldn't have guessed it was over one hundred years old except for its 1909 cornerstone.

My final Carnegie and thirty-second of this ride came in Rochelle, a city of 9,500, seventeen miles west of  DeKalb and Northern Illinois University.  It had long ago outgrown its Carnegie, but still utilized it with a large addition that fully matched the original, including ornate decorations below the roofline around the entire building.  It maintained its prominence as the most distuished building in Rochelle--a temple and a shrine in the spirit of the majority of Carnegies.

My last campsite of the trip was through a soybean field to a dilapidated barn.  As with nearly every campsite once I left the mountains of Colorado, I was regularly woken through the night by freight trains blasting their horns as they approached an intersection.  Freight trains are thriving.  At times as many as three would pass in an hour.  Their engineers must love to toot their horns, as they would occasionally acknowledge me when they'd pass on a lonely road with no traffic for miles.  

I braced myself for the heavy traffic of Chicago's sprawl that extends for thirty miles or more in three directions, all except to the east blocked by Lake Michigan.  I am so accustomed to the sprawl, that I fully accepted what I was in for, just as I have been with my bruised shoulder, having endured such an injury three times before.  I'm glad the injury didn't prevent me from finishing off my ride, which has become a virtual commute I have done it so many times.  But unlike the normal commute, there is an inordinate amount of variety and satisfaction in each.  I am already plotting next year's route that will take me to the lone Carnegie I have yet to visit in Colorado, down in its southeast corner, and then a ride across Kansas rather than Nebraska.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Clinton, Iowa

My days on the bike are defined by any number of events--the Carnegies along the way, something I might find along the road, my camp site, a food treat, a conversation, an extraordinary site or happenstance.  The past ten days have had the added spector of the healing process of my shoulder.  Every day has shown improvement as my shoulder regains strength and mobility, allowing me to do some simple task I couldn't do before.

It was heartening to be able to open doors or to even carry something with my left hand.  I could gauge my progress by the amount of weight I could lift, starting with my sleeping pad and now finally able to manage a full rear pannier.  It is a joy to be able to lift my tent in the morning and shake out the debris before dismantling it.  It is a relief to be able to pull on my socks with both hands and to reach over with my left arm to unzip the tent.  I was happy to be able to push my bike up a steep embankment in the morning after camping in a cornfield without hardly a grimace.  It's nice to once again be able to reach back to a rear pannier while still straddling the bike.  

It wasn't until last night though that I was brave enough to attempt to pull my sweater over my head and wriggle my arms into it.  I didn't have much choice as I was cold and wet.  I was prepared to stay in a motel for the second time if one had presented itself, or, better yet, an old-time rooming house, as some of these small towns still offer.  But I had no such luck, camping once again behind a closed down service station.  I could have wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and hoped that would warm me up, but first I attempted my sweater. Lo and behold, it went on with only just minor wincing, not even a grimace.  That's the best news of all, as I have been starting my days chilled in forty degree temperatures, letting exertion warm me up.  Now I can put my sweater to use and a long sleeve t-shirt if it's really cold.  The final test will be if I can push Janina's lawn mower when I return.

Despite my rapid recovery, I'm riding with a cloud of wariness that is somewhat distracting.  I don't want to fall on my tender shoulder or gimpy knee.  Any fracture in the pavement raises an alarm that I might catch a tire and go tumbling.  The gravel shoulder is a constant reminder of my fall and warning to be alert.  When the wind is strong from any direction, a passing 18-wheeler can redirect a blast of it at me, threatening to blow me off the road.  I wouldn't stay upright long dashed into the thick  quagmire of gravel beside the pavement.  Route 30 across the state has too much traffic, and especially big trucks, to recommend it to cycling, but with its string of fifteen Carnegies, it was a route I had to take. Not everyone was happy about it.  All too many motorists have blasted their horns at me.  One would think cyclists weren't welcome in this state.  

A genuine ogre of a farmer ordered me off his property in a rage when I tried to camp behind a couple of his silos.  I was caught by dark and was desperate for a place to camp, as the corn fields had had no gaps in them for miles.  I thought the silos, which were surrounded by heavy farm equipment, were far enough from his home that I wouldn't be noticed or minded.  But his wife happened to be looking out as I approached them and sicced her hulk of a husband on me.  He was big enough that he didn't need to come with a rifle.  "What are you doing?" he demanded, just as I was beginning to set up my tent.  

"I was caught by the dark and needed a place to pitch my tent.  I didn't want to startle you and ask if it was okay.  I'm just passing through.  I'll be gone by first light."

"I want you gone right now.  You scared the shit out of my wife.  I don't care which way you're going, I just want you off my property."

There was no debate to the issue, so I quickly packed up and headed down the road in the dark.  Half a mile away I came to a cleared lane through a soybean field that was perfect.  I pushed my bike up over a rise so I wouldn't be seen from the road and celebrated this quiet, idyllic spot.  Ten minutes later, just as I finished putting all my gear into the tent, a pair of headlights closed in on me.  I figured it was a farmer crossing his field, but as the car approached the driver flicked on a revolving red light on his dashboard to signify he was a cop.  A young man hopped out with a badge in his hand.  By the time he reached me, a large pick-up truck pulled up behind him and out emerged the ogre.  

The officer was soft-spoken and kindly.  He could tell I was no threat, but he had to do this guy's bidding even though I was no longer on his property.  He apologized that people around here are very suspicious of strangers and that even though I wasn't doing any harm and would be gone without this farmer knowing I had been there, I couldn't stay.  He said he'd drive me to the next town a couple miles away where I could camp in its town park.  As I took down my tent, we had a friendly, neighborly conversation while the ogre silently glared in the background.   I told him about my Carnegie quest and that there were over one hundred Carnegies in Iowa including the first one Carnegie funded west of the Mississiippi.  The only Carnegie he knew was the motivational speaker.  He told me about taking a church group of twenty teens to Europe and how they had roughed it camping at churches.  

As we drove to the town of State Center he offered to stop at a Casey's service station and buy me some food.  I told him I had plenty.  After he dropped me off he shook my hand and said it was nice to meet me.  His kindness though did little to blunt the hostility of the farmer.  He really had it in for me to have known where I had disappeared to and to have called this officer, who was off-duty and a neighbor of his.  I didn't know whether to be more upset by his animosity or his fear that I might be a threat, one of them terrorists.  He was another example, like the many motorists who take umbrage at my presence, that RAGBRAI has not fully endeared cyclists to all in Iowa.  The officer confirmed that the rowdiness of many of the thousands of riders, many of whom come from out-of-state,  antagonizes the conservative side of many Iowans.  It is a Trump state after all.

My lift to State Center got me close enough to Marshalltown and its Carnegie that I arrived in time for breakfast at a downtown diner--two of the biggest pancakes I have ever encountered.  They were enough for breakfast and lunch and filled me so well I didn't need to nibble on the nuts and raisins in my handlebar bag.

It's Carnegie too was a grand edifice, a two-story white-stoned building with a corner entrance, above which was "Gift of Andrew Carnegie."  It now serves as offices for the local government.

Twenty miles away Tama's much smaller Carnegie had also been retired.  It was on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood with no room for expansion.  There was no interest in purchasing it for enterprise.  When no buyer came forth when it was replaced sixteen years ago, the next door neighbors purchased it and used it for a woodworking shop and for a spell as a day care center.  They have done little to maintain it.  The front entrance is overgrown by bushes and the side that adjoins the owners is cluttered with cars.  But it still exudes a glow of nobility.

Then came the longest stretch on 30 between Carnegies, over fifty miles to Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in Iowa with a population of 130,000.  It was recovering from the second worst flood in its history.  The low-lying downtown along the Cedar River was closed off.  School had been out all week. The flood waters had receded and with the blocked roads not being vigilantly attended I was able to cross the still swollen Cedar on the 2nd Avenue bridge and reach the Carnegie on 3rd Avenue.  On the way I passed the still sandbagged Paramount Theater.  It had cost $35 million to restore it in 2008 after the city's worst flood.  There was enough warning for this year's flood to remove all its seats and take them to the second floor.

Just four blocks away there were no sandbags around the former Carnegie, now part of the city's large Art Museum.  It's roofline bore the names of the usual (Dante, Homer, Virgil, Shakeapeare, Irving, Goethe) and one surprise (Komensky).

The adjoining town of Marion also had a Carnegie, though it too had been replaced.  It now offered religious services for the First United Methodist Church, though it's entrance was still graced with "Carnegie Library, Free to the People."

I angled back to route 30 and Mount Vernon to Cornell College and the library funded for the school that also served as the town library.  It faced onto the quad of similar red brick buildings and was now the Norton Geology Center and Anderson Museum.  The new library also served the college and town in this pleasantly wholesome small town.

The Carnegie in DeWitt was being renovated by its new owners to host special events.  It was in the center of the town half a block from a diner that was packed on Saturday morning serving breakfast.  It's three-stack was modest enough that it was a rare hotcakes meal I could finish.

It gave me more than enough energy to reach Clinton, sixteen miles away, without having to nibble.  It's majestic Carnegie was the first since Ames, six Carnegies ago, that still functioned as a library, and was large enough that it hadn't been added on to.  It was the first building visitors saw when they crossed the Mississiippi from Illinois.  Seven of the fifteen on my route across Iowa still served as libraries.  It was a spectacular finale.  I have three that I have yet to visit on my remaining 150 miles  across Illinois beginning with one in Fulton, just across the river.