For twenty minutes I was treated to a spectacular thunder and lightning show a little past dark as I sat in my tent trying to listen to the Cubs game over all the commotion. I was camped in a thirty-foot wide corridor of grass between two fields of withered corn. They were the highest structure around, just a couple feet higher than my tent and bike. I didn't know what the lightening crackling all around me might be drawn to, but I did toss my metal water bottle outside my tent as bait.
The noise escalated with a barrage of rain and a wind that threatened to uproot my rain fly tugging at its four stakes and bashing it into the sides of my tent, totally drowning out the ball game. At least it put an end to the pyrotechnics. The ground around me was soft, so I was confident it could absorb the rain. I was beginning to regret that I hadn't taken advantage of a motel a couple miles back that had tempted me for the opportunity to watch the game. I knew that this predicted front would plummet the temperatures into the forties and would make for a high of just 55 the next day. A cool night didn't concern me, but it would be easier to bundle up in the morning in a motel room, than in my tent. But as John Muir preached, one can't underestimate the pleasure of being out experiencing the elements. If I had given in to the lure of the motel, I would have been regretting not being out in the storm. When it's fury finally abated after a few minutes, I could resume listening to the Cubs' struggles in their first game against the Dodgers, eventually losing 5-2.
If I were still in an area of wind turbines, as I was when I crossed into Illinois, the lightning would have had plenty of targets. I might have blamed the turbines for creating the lightning storm. The turbines aren't welcome by all. One of the strongest arguments against them is that people don't want to look at them. That is especially true when a tree is in their midst, totally upstaging them. It's obvious which is more pleasing to the eye and soothing to the soul.
Those who regard the turbines as an eyesore will be even more incensed when the purveyors of solar panels begin covering acres and acres of farmland with their panels.
Wind turbines are often front page news in the small-town newspapers I glance at during my library stops. The biggest news though at the Sheldon Carnegie, my first after crossing back into Illinois, was its new air conditioner, making it all the more popular this past summer. It was still a classic one-room library, much as it was when it was built one hundred years ago, other than the addition of the air conditioner and an elevator. The remodeling moved the circ desk from the middle of the room to the side, making it a little less prominent and impressive.
Only one of the 111 Carnegies in Illinois was built after Sheldon's, the one in Gilman twenty miles to the west. It had been replaced and has sat vacant for years. A "for sale" sits out front.
As I circled around it in the dusk, happy to note that it hadn't had an addition, a car pulled up. Before I glanced at it I thought I might finally be having my first encounter with a police officer on this trip, but the car contained two middle-aged women, one wearing a Cubs jersey. The woman in the passenger seat eagerly asked, "Have you come to see our Carnegie?"
To my "yes," she said, "That's what we thought when we saw you down the road."
"Do you know what it is selling for."
"No, but I could look it up on my phone. I'm curious too."
"Don't bother. It's getting dark and I need to find a place to camp. Is there any place to camp around here?"
I thought they might get into an argument about whose back yard would be more preferable and I could instill a bidding war with who could provide the best meal and had the hottest shower, but neither was brave enough to bring me home. Instead, I found a weedy patch of bushes and trees along the railroad tracks on the outskirts of the town. I couldn't go too far down the road as the next Carnegie was in Onarga, five miles to the south. If I had though, I could have camped in Onarga's semi-forested cemetery, something I have yet to do on this trip.
The Onarga Carnegie was built ten years before the one in Gilman, perhaps inspiring those in Gilman to acquire one of their own. Onarga was still using theirs as is, or at least from what I could see from the outside, as I arrived a couple hours before it opened. The "Carnegie" in capital letters chiseled over its entry below "Public Library" added to its stature.
I spent the rest of the day pushing into a strong wind to the next Carnegie in El Paso, fifty miles down the road. I was able to ride on county roads much of the way paralleling highway 24, just ducking into Fairbury for food. If I were Jane and Michael Stern, who have been writing books and columns on road food since the '70s, I would have dined at the "Lost in Time Restaurant and Bakery," that boasted "Made from Scratch," but I didn't have the time to spare for a sit-down meal if I wished to make it to the El Paso library before closing time.
I had been reading the Stern's memoir, "Two for the Road," published in 2006, two years before their divorce. It was a travel book as much as a food book. It recounted how they met in graduate school at Yale and bonded over food and married in 1970. When neither could find a job in their fields, both receiving MFAs in Art, they got an advance on a book about truck-stop food and hit the road. They drove hundreds of miles across the country eating up to twelve meals a day in search of exceptional meat loaf and macaroni and cheese and other American standards. They'd eat as much as they could, not wishing to upset their waitresses. Michael would run to burn calories, but not his wife. I thought of them too when I spotted the "Farmer's Table" restaurant in Boswell, "Hub of the Universe," wondering if they had checked it out. It wasn't in the book I was reading, but they could have easily visited it on another venture.
I ducked into the library at Fairbury to avoid a sudden downpour. It closed at one. As I stood under its entry after being evicted, putting on my rain gear, an older woman asked about my ride and if I was visiting family.
"No, just friends."
"Have you ever ridden your bike so far before?"
"I like to ride my bike. Not enough other people do, so I'm trying to make up for them."
"Well, I don't suppose you're doing any harm."
"That's the point. Driving does...in more ways than most realize."
"I better get going. It was nice talking to you."
I made it to El Paso by 4:30 but it's library had closed at one as well. It was a twin-turreted beauty, sitting in a large park, with a large addition to its side with stone similar to the original. A banner on a pole out front pronounced what all libraries could--"Where friends meet." I rested at one of the eighteen picnic tables behind the library under two open-sided coverings. It too looked like a popular community gathering spot.
The next day after the July Fourth extravaganza in my tent it was on to Streator along the Vermilion River for its Carnegie. On the way into this larger town I passed a cul de sac named for Rhett Butler. I could spot its grand edifice of a Carnegie from more than a block away. Out front along the street a planter advised "Read a Book."
Then I had the decision of heading northeast back to Chicago one hundred miles away or going northwest one hundred miles towards the Mississippi and a cluster of five more Carnegies up in the corner of the state, the only ones in the north of the state I had yet to visit. I have felt very remiss for neglecting them. With those five I would have gotten to all fifty-eight of the Carnegies in Illinois north of Peoria. All that remained were twenty of the 111 in the southern sector of the state. It might be too soon to pull the plug on this fabulous fall ride, but I probably will have to put off those others for another time.
But it would be tempting to keep going all the way to the bottom of the state and the Carnegie in Metropolis on the Ohio River. As always, the longer the ride, the better it gets, especially after 2,000 miles, which I passed a couple of days ago. Even at 1,000 I only feel as if I'm just getting started. It has been nice to be lately riding without the pressure of reaching a distant destination by a certain time. The past week has been biking as it was meant to be--riding and riding, luxuriating in the moment, unconcerned with being somewhere. After a month the road begins to feel like home. The other home has less and less of a lure. The best part of getting back, other than seeing Janina, is leaving on the next trip. Don Jaime has proposed meeting up in the Azores. How could I say no to that?