Of course, Jodi and Chris were curious about my plans for the morning and gave me a ton of choices. They had to drive the bus but only from 7:30 to 8:30. Did I just want to grab breakfast (from their coffers, of course) while they were out and then disappear on my bike? Or I could wait for them and they’d make me breakfast? “Or we can take you out,” Chris said. I chose option B. I definitely wanted to spend more time with them – but didn’t want to leave too late.
Chris made a mean omelet with sausage and tomato. And we chatted for about an hour and a half. They warned me about tornadoes (Chris found images for “shelf cloud,” a warning sign that you’re just about to experience a twister – I have been looking for them ever since), educated me about the No Wind Turbines campaign in their county (he showed me a gobsmacking video of a giant wind turbine exploding, which apparently is a thing!), and cautioned me not to talk about Trump in rural Illinois (while Indiana is pretty solid red except for a few cities, Illinois is governed statewide by Democrats despite the deep redness of all rural counties, so they’re a little more sensitive than Indianans, and love them some Trump.) I wasn’t going to talk about Trump! Not with anyone who didn’t signal their alignment with my views, anyway. Again, I’m looking to connect. When I get back to the bubble, I’ll be in the bubble. There, I’ll talk smack 24/7. Or maybe a bit less.
I really wanted to stay longer but it was already 10, and I was unsure about where I was going to end up.
Chris tried to explain the way back to the route from their house, but I guess I either seemed like a dingbat or too pedantic (asking him for specific names of every road, turn by turn), so he offered to drive it slowwwwwwwly, and I’d follow him as quickly as possible. I said okay. Did I have a choice this time? Seemingly not. We took pictures of each other and gave each other hugs.
I said, “Physical contact—”
Chris interrupted. “…is underrated.”
“Yes, but that’s not what I mean. It’s rare. On the road.”
I generally don’t hug strangers. (Except in NA. Everyone hugs in NA. Which is sometimes great, sometimes it’s perfunctory, and sometimes it’s downright uncomfortable.) And I am rarely the initiator of a hug with someone I don’t know. But I asked them. With Jodi and Chris, I felt comfortable being myself, and hugging them was an expression of gratitude for that – and for their generosity.
As patient as Chris was driving in front of me for several miles, it was agonizing to be so far behind. It didn’t matter that he was in a car, that he offered, that he was fine with it, that I’m practicing taking people at face value, I still felt like I was taking up too much of his time. He stopped just beyond grounds of the recently-shuttered (due to lack of funds) St. Joseph’s College and pointed to the route.
Aw, heck! The winds are back in full force. Though I’d slept well in that heavenly guestroom bed, I was tired from the previous two long days. I’d averaged 93 miles over the past four since leaving the Cleveland area. I really wanted to get to the Mississippi River in three days to make up for the extra rest day with my cousins, but the prospects looked dim, considering how I was feeling and the distance between towns with camping or hotels ahead.
I just put my head down and pedaled into Illinois. Aargh! No welcome sign.I won’t take it personally.
There isn’t much to see in this part of Illinois that’s different from Indiana or Ohio.
I muse about the groups of buzzards I keep seeing. When you see a cohort of them on the road, you know they are picking away at a carcass of some sort. Buzzards seem conspiratorial. It’s like they witness a murder and then move the dead body all around to make it look even more grotesque for when the forensics agents arrive at the crime scene. When I interrupt buzzards mid-scrounge, it’s always at a particularly obscene stage of the process, such as when pecking out an eye or stretching out the viscera along the road like pappardelle pasta, as if to show me what goods they got. Thanks, guys.But seriously, the buzzards in this part of the country do a pretty good job picking up the mess left by cars or other bedevilments. I’ve definitely been gagging less at the sight and smell of rot over the past few days.
I know I write about this carnage often. That should demonstrate the frequency of encounters and their effect on me. I’m reminded of a play I did a while back, Roadkill Confidential. Without getting too much into it, the story (‘a noir-ish meditation on brutality’) focuses on an FBI agent who’s crazy-obsessed with this artist whose subject is… you guessed it! Roadkill. I’m endlessly horrified and transfixed by the brutality I witness (after the fact, thankfully). The positions of the animals. Their expressions, their death masks. Their vulnerability. Their beauty in expiry. Sometimes I think I should be capturing these images. I definitely considered doing this in 2009, way before Roadkill Confidential. But, nah, not that committed to my subjects.
The animals also remind me of a traumatic event when I was 17. I was head over heels in love with a friend of mine. Me: gay, but not out, no way, not yet. Him: straight, quite curious, kinda anarchist. We sort of dated…. I mean, not in a gay way! We reassured one another that fucking around absolutely did NOT make us gay. Well, not for him… Ended with my heart broken (and then well protected for some time afterward). ANYWAY, so one night we were stoned and walking along Kiwanis Drive, not exactly a busy street for the suburbs but one with a posted and normally well-enforced 25mph speed limit. This road probably paid for my entire public education considering the number of speeding citations slapped on drivers. One driver who averted such a ticket came barreling down the road that night, his brakes screeeching a few houses down from where my friend and I were walking. We heard a thwump in the darkness, and the car sped away. Near the curb was a cat, run over, folded, warped, its head rolling around, mouth open, soundless noise. “We have to put it out of its misery!” my friend said. “It’s the humane thing to do.” He lifted his foot. “No!” I yelled. “Use a rock!” There were none.
I didn’t watch what he did or hear it. I ran up the street with my hands over my ears, bellowing. The image of that cat is forever emblazoned on my brain.
Yeah, pedaling, pedaling, pedaling, my feet move according to the map and my mind wanders the elevation profile from pain to hilarity.
There are more and more rolling hills the closer I get to the Mississippi, but it’s mostly just endless corn and beans. Corn and beans. I am reminded of another play. Fencerow to Fencerow, or more fondly and familiarly known as Corn Play. This piece was written by my friend Matt McCray, the Artistic Director of Son of Semele Ensemble, a theater company of which I was a member for a decade. Corn Play was inspired in part by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the focus of American agricultural efforts shifting from smaller subsistence farming to corporate mass production of corn and soybeans (and other crops) for feeding livestock in order to feed our nation’s unlimited appetite for meat, and for processed food, and for gas. The land out here is owned by far fewer people than half a century ago. I can’t claim to be an expert about food and agriculture policy, but the looming presence of corporate conglomerates is easily visible in the fields, most of which sport corporate logos. Families, like Frances’s, still own the land (there are state laws that prevent tera-giga-mega-corporations from ownership of a considerable percentage of acreage, though the ‘family farming’ companies can be quite large), but what’s grown is stipulated by these giant food conglomerates, and those companies are the ones that guarantee the purchase of the farms’ largely genetically engineered crops. I’ve seen a few signs that say “Non-GMO crops,” maybe a handful. It’s a good deal for Frances, I would guess. Her family works hard and gets paid to grow corn that she says is used to produce ethanol. We all have a job to do. Practically the whole U.S. agricultural infrastructure is designed to support this system of growing corn ‘n beans. But isn’t it strange? All that work, all that land, all that water used to grow a product that then we add to gasoline (supposedly to make it cleaner) and just burn it – or feed it to livestock. And make shitty processed food from it. Which I am eating a ton of on this trip! Like I said, I have barely any idea what I’m talking about. It’s so backwards that there’s all this land and I haven’t seen any locally grown produce. Maybe it’s all being sold in Walmart? In Iowa, for instance (I know I’m getting ahead of myself here!), I rode on bike paths that were home to infinite numbers of blackberries growing on bushes that lining the trail for miles and miles. I guess the animals and insects feast on those. There is also a ton of blackberry guts that end up smushed on bicycle tires. Inky juice splattered on yellow panniers. When I went to a supermarket in Des Moines that was pretty upscale (i.e., it had a lot of organic produce), the blackberries there were from Mexico. It’s a strange disconnect.
I forgot to mention in the previous entry that the Campbell’s Soup corporation has a big…plant? factory? processing facility? … in Napoleon, Ohio. I’m sure it employs a ton of people, right? (Rather than robots.) So that’s awesome. But soup is made inside there. Sigh.
I hear a lot of older people in the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous say something to the effect of: The older I get, I realize I know less and less. I’m on the precipice of absorbing this wise-saw into my outlook. There’s too much to know. Aging is humbling in this regard. As youth, we think we know everything. Me, I think I’ve had a harder time letting go of needing to proveI’m sufficiently informed in order to be considered intelligent.
Riding in Illinois that morning, I’m ingesting so much information. Innumerable stimuli pummel and poke at me. On a day like today, trying to absorb and process it all, to differentiate what are my experiences from my assumptions and filters versus actual data. Whew! The mental energy needed to grasp, absorb and process it all luckily distracts me from aches or counting mileage.
Speaking of ingesting, not far from the Illinois-Indiana boundary, I approach a line of four tankers on my left. These contain anhydrous ammonia. One is currently being used to spray god-knows-how-many acres of corn. As I pedal closer, the fumes thicken and I’m breathing in ammonia. Not the idea of ammonia, not a type of ammonia that doesn’t smell like ammonia, not a lefty-snowflake climate-change-crier overstatement of ammonia. But actual ammonia. I guess that’s (the new?) normal. So, let me guess: each plant sprayed does not absorb all that anhydrous ammonia; the excess gets – what exactly? – washed off by rain, by dew, and is absorbed into the soil, which gets into the water supply, which then – what, exactly? – gets removed by water treatment plants, so we are not drinking ammonia or bathing in it. Is that how this works?
It’s not that bad, right? I mean, I just cycled through it. I’m still breathing. …Right?
Witnessing the spraying and (unintentionally) huffing the ammoniac vapors further endorses my No Stealth Camping rule, especially on farms. Stealth camping is pitching your tent in an unauthorized location, basically asking for forgiveness (if you get caught) instead of asking for permission beforehand. I’ve never had a reason to camp on somebody else’s property without asking. Cycling across the country is adventurous enough. I don’t need to trespass to make the journey exhilarating. Others (particularly younger tourers I’ve run into) aren’t concerned about trespassing. Still others believe it’s their right to camp wherever they want. Fuck the Man! I’m all for fucking men and for challenging the fallacies of property “ownership” (whose land is it anyway? I mean seriously, how did you come by it? how did the previous owners come by it? every bit of land was taken from someone by force at some point. buying property…it’s like purchasing a stolen bike on craigslist, etc., etc.) but I don’t want to debate the issue staring down the barrel of a gun. Land may belong to everyone, but bullets are real. Now that I’ve beheld the anhydrous ammonia being sprayed, I’ll take even more of a no-thank-you to unauthorized camping on this vast acreage. Not that I needed another justification.
Besides ammonia soaked fields, I had two choices for places to stop on Day 14. Ashkum, Illinois was, according to Jodi, 45 to 50 miles away from Rensselaer; and Odell was an additional 40 or so. I really wanted to get to Odell, at least so I could take a photo and send it to my buddy Raymond Odell back in LA; he’s from Nebraska but maybe the Illinoisan Odells are related to his people! But I didn’t need to sleep there to text a picture. And to be honest, I didn’t have another 90ish-mile day in me, not with the winds 100% westerly. According to the Northern Tier map info, in Ashkum (pop. 761) cyclists can camp in the town park, as long as they contact the mayor to let him know (phone number included). There was no shower in the park, but they’ll open up the bathroom and sweaty cyclists can do whatever they need to do, I suppose. Hmm, not having a shower isn’t an unbreakable rule, but it’s probably the most important ‘amenity’ to me. It’s less that I care about being clean; it’s that I care about being comfortable. Oh well. It’s only 45 miles. And headwinds have the benefit of blow-drying you as you ride into them.
Ashkum it is! I was relieved that it turned out to be 54 miles as it seemed a bit closer to a ‘real’ day. The water tower depicts an American flag, and a boy and girl holding hands. I ride around to the other side to see if there is same-sex couple representation on there. …Kidding! There’s no way.
The gas station/convenience store has a Subway right inside, so I knew what I’d be having for dinner. Before dealing with food, I’d better hit up Mayor Paul Heinemann first. No answer; voicemail outgoing message is woman’s voice and it wasn’t any sort of formal “You’ve reached the City of Ashkum…” More like, “Leave a message and we’ll call you right back!” Hmm. I left a message, saying who I was and why I was calling. I guess I’ll just ride to the park and see what happens. It’s not stealth camping if you call even if you don’t actually speak to someone, right? Ugh, what if there’s been a political coup, and Heinemann’s out and his successor thinks out-of-town cyclists should git!
Before I can even start to fret, an older gentleman pulls up next to me and Whitey. He’s on an orange…I dunno what it is exactly… a motorcycle/scooter with a sidecar. “You lookin’ for the park?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “I called the number for the mayor, but no one picked up.”
“Oh,” says the man, “He’s probably at a game. His daughter plays. He’ll call you right back. I could take you to his place.”
Yikes. I don’t want to be a bother to this man, and even in a town of 700-something, it seems a bit much to knock on the mayor’s door. He sees my hesitation and says, “Follow me to the park.”
So I do that. The park is pretty and calm. Totally ample. There’s a pavilion in case it rains, which it’s not supposed to. Lots of picnic tables and grills. A playground. Flat and not gravelly, ideal for tent-pitching. Cool.
The next few hours are like an episode of a TV comedy where a well-meaning yet keeps-to-himself type of extraterrestrial dude descends on a small town in the American Midwest, just looking for a place to lay his head…and ends up with a whole lot more. He doesn’t realize that he’s in a fishbowl.
A pickup drives by. It’s familiar to my new friend. “There goes [Insert Regular Ol’ Name]! He’s got the key to the bathroom! I’m gonna chase him down! You wait here!!” And the man zooms off, at about 15mph in his orange buggy. I see the pickup cross the railroad tracks a couple blocks north, and it’s over. He zooms back.
“Dang! I missed ‘im!”
Name? “O’Brien,” he says. “Mick O’Brien.” After another minute, he’s zooming away again to check with his wife if it’s okay for me to shower at their place. I was worried it was far away. “It’s only a couple of blocks,” he reassured me. “Everything here’s real close by.” Mick’s back in five minutes flat in a pickup this time and I follow him on Whitey.
Mick’s wife Mary is adorable and sweet and welcoming and “No problem at all, glad to help” in that matchless, straightforward Midwestern way I keep experiencing over and over. Mick shows me the bathroom where Mary’s already set out towels for me and turned on the light. I pass by the living room and there are about 8 chairs set up. “Oh, sorry about that. Church choir’s rehearsing tonight. And we’re getting’ ready to head to our place in Eastern Tennessee this weekend. Oh, you’d love it there!”
In the bathroom I notice a plaque dedicated to Mick O’Brien, Fire Chief. A few minutes later I’m in the the kitchen with the O’Briens. Mary is digging out fruit for me. Banana, a bag of blueberries, cherries. Ice water. Something’s in the oven. Banana cake?!
I say, “You’re the Fire Chief!”
“Not anymore,” says Mick. He’s 81.
They mention their girls. A daughter lives in Georgia and is meeting them with the grandkids in Tennessee. “Oh, she’d get a real kick out of meeting you!” The O’Briens agree on this for sure. I ask about their other daughter’s whereabouts. But she was killed in a car accident when she was 18. Mary sees my shock and sadness, and she says (reassuring me!) “Aww, I know. It was 23 years ago. We’ve made our peace with it now. We had 18 wonderful years with her.”
I don’t know how people can go on. I really don’t.
With all this going on, Mary’s been on the phone calling or texting different folks who may have a key to the bathroom in the park and can open it for “this young guy on a bicycle.” As it turns out, the man in the pickup who Mick tried to chase down is at the gym in Clifton (4 miles away) and he’ll be back by 6:30pm after his workout. Since I can’t carry all the water and fruit that Mary’s given me, we make a plan. I’ll go to Subway to grab the rest of what I need, and she’ll meet me at the park in a few minutes. “Are you sure?” Of course they’re sure!
A while later, I’m at the park. A man approaches me. It’s Steve, who owns one of the two bars in town. They’re about to have the town’s monthly Lion’s Club meeting right there in the park, and, based on his fiddling with the charcoal grill, a cookout as well. Steve asks me about my trip, while intently watching me set up my tent. “You must get real good at setting up that tent.”
It’s not much of a conversation. I’m sort of all talked out after the past few days of being a guest and talking to myself on the bike. And singing every Beatles song that I know as loud as I want to pass time. My phone rings! It’s the Mayor’s number I called earlier.
But it isn’t the Mayor. It’s his wife. “That was me waving at you earlier!” she said. Oh right, someone on a golf cart waved to me as I rode into town. “Sorry, I didn’t stop.” She’s calling to make sure that I have everything I need and that someone’s opened the bathroom.
“Yes,” I confirm with her. “Everything’s great. I’m here with, um, a man named Steve. Who owns the bar.”
“Oh, must be the Lion’s Club meeting. You’re in good hands.”
It’s getting cold in the park, believe it or not. I want to excuse myself to put on long pants, but the bathroom’s not open. Steve has a key! Of course, the Lion’s Club has a key. Others arrive. Steve says about 20 are expected. I have a nice chat with a man named Dan who’s always curious about the cyclists who camp out here. Dan also asks if I want to join them all for a steak. “It’s cook your own!”
“Are you sure?” Of course he’s sure. Dan chides Steve for not asking me sooner.
They’re sure, but I’m not. The beers come out. Members of the Ashkum Lion’s Club are definitely drinkers. I’m offered a beer about seven times. I decline. The group is comprised of women and men, but they sit separately, chatting amongst their own gender.
Mary drives by and I grab the fruit and water. “Oh, the Lion’s Club! Make sure they feed ya!” I almost ask her to bring me home with her.
At some point, I do what I absolutely have to do. Here in the Land of Endless Acres of Yeses, sometimes I gotta carve out a ‘No Thanks Corner of the Map.’ I think of my sponsor telling me: “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” This advice may seem obvious to you, but holy Moses, I need to hear it. Truthfully, I’m starving and the steaks don’t seem to be cooking themselves. No one else is cooking them either. Plus, I already bought dinner, even though it’s just Subway. There’s spinach in that sandwich! And I don’t wantto mingle with twenty strangers pretty much ever, especially while they’re drinking beer for the next several hours. Although part of me is certainly interested in the actual Lion’s Club meeting, whenever that gets around to happening, I’m okay skipping it. Maybe they post the minutes online, though I doubt it.
I want to crawl into my tent (it’s getting colder and colder). I vant to be alone.
I tell Dan something to the effect of: thanks but no thanks. I need to turn in early. No, I really appreciate the offer but I already have dinner, no, no seriously, I don’t need a beer to go. I smile my crooked uncomfortable smile as I drag my tent and Whitey across the park to the other smaller pavilion. RUN!
My phone rings. It’s Samm!
We talk while I cram turkey sub and Doritos down my gullet. I’m feeling at ease again. But then, a man pulls up in his pickup. The man clad in denim boots and a red cap strolls over toward me. He sees I have earbuds in. We gesture the international sign language for: Oh, you’re on the phone. I don’t want to bother you. No, no, I’m getting off, one sec. Are you sure, cuz I could come back? No, seriously, hello, one sec.
I tell Samm, “Umm, someone is coming over here. Can I call you right back?”
This is Paul Heinemann, Mayor of Ashkum. “Wow!” I say, “I can’t believe you came to meet me.” Of course he did. Paul grew up in Ashkum, has never lived anywhere else (in fact, from where we stood, he pointed toward every place he’s lived in town), and has been mayor for 35 years, which is puzzling because he doesn’t seem any older than, say, 55. “Has anyone tried to topple your regime?” I ask. Of course they have, but no one has been successful. One man was fired from the Town Board, then ran on a revenge ticket and failed. Don’t mess with Heinemann!
Paul tells me more about Ashkum, the impact of the economic struggles, how more people are moving here now because it’s more affordable, even some from nearer to Chicago (we are 65 miles from Chi-Town) who commute there daily. Crazy! I tell him I met Mick and Mary O’Brien. Paul mentions the daughter who died. The incident really affected the town. He’s a seriously nice guy. Laconic for sure. We stand in silence now and again. But that’s sometimes what people do, right? I can be friggin’ laconic with the best of ‘em!
And laid back.
I can say, “Yup,” apropos of nothing, breathe in air, rearrange my cap, and look at my feet. Swat a bug. Sniff.
Say, “Yup” again, with a slightly different intonation.
Paul’s about to leave when his wife [Insert Wife’s Name Here] appears. “I’m with the First Couple!” They nod and smile. Mrs. Mayor stays for a bit before excusing herself, but Paul stays longer until there really isn’t much more to say, and I’ve asked every question about Ashkum that I can think of.
I call Samm back immediately. “That’s was the Mayor! Just come to say what’s up. And then his wife came.”
“Wow, you’re popular.”
“Yup,” I say.
Moments later, another guy approaches. Around my age. Good-looking. Carrying a toddler.
“Oh, shit! Here comes someone else. Call you back!”
This dude is Mike. He owns Mugshots, the bar in Ashkum that Steve doesn’t own. He grew up here but spent some time away and came back to open the bar. He showed me on the Mugshots t-shirt he was wearing that it said Ashkum, America on it. Ashkum, Illinois is the only one in the country. Cute. I got the feeling Mike did quite a bit of wild oat sowing bartending in the Caribbean and such. “I’m 43, and I’m only recently a dad.” His towhead little princess loves her daddy. She’s silent but you can tell there’s a lot going on in that mind of hers. Mike told me I could head over to Mugshots and have drinks on him, if I wanted to. Of course he meant it.
Eventually the Ashkum Aquarium hours ended and the traveling exhibit crawled into his lair. I had Mary’s fruit to look forward to when I woke up and a few chuckles about the utter pricelessness of Ashkum, America.