I woke up singing in my tent in Ashkum. More like humming. I couldn’t figure out the tune. More like a phrase. Three or four notes. Oh well. Hum hum-hum hum. One of my favorite things about breaking down camp and prepping to ride after sleeping outside is setting out breakfast on the picnic table and eating it bit by bit as I’m doing something else. Hum hum-hum hum. I’m sure it’s better for one’s digestion to sit and focus on food and chewing and swallowing and being grateful for the nourishment and being neat about it all. But I don’t usually wake up hungry on the road. Hum hum-hum hum.(What is that tune? Driving me crazy!) Hum hum-hum hum. Breakfast is fuel, not a meal. It’s different when you’re with a warmshowers host or even at a crappy hotel continental breakfast. (I love the word “continental” to describe weak coffee, donuts, Lucky Charms, that unappetizing tradition of sausage and gray gravy on a biscuit, and maybe a yogurt or hard-boiled egg if you’re fortunate. What continent is that? USA! USA!) Hum hum-hum hum.
Through slurps of yogurt, smacks of Mary’s wonderful fruit kept cool by the night air, and crunches of granola, I packed up camp and stuffed everything back into Whitey’s panniers. Hum hum-hum hum. Then, I realized what the tune was. I was humming the four notes that some chickens were playing on repeat across the street from the park. Thanks, chickens.
Despite no coffee, all morning necessities happened in the park bathroom, and I was off! But, to where? After a shorter day, I figured I could make it to Henry, IL which from the topography on the map looked sort of green and lush. It was on the Illinois River. Seems like there’s free cyclist camping at the city pool? I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m in! Pool. It’s cool now, but the weather.com app says 88 high, so pooooool!
Day 15 was for sure a riding-only day. Nothing really between Ashkum and Henry. Just farms and a few hills. I took off. Not three miles out of town, a pickup truck is…chasing me down? Who could this be? I fear delay.
It’s Mick O’Brien. What a guy! “I came by the park and you were gone. Came to see if you needed anything. But I guess you don’t.” I got the feeling that he and Mary wanted to have me come for breakfast. As much as I would have liked to spend more time with the O’Briens, I was pointing forward. I was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, I could cross the Mississippi River into Muscatine, Iowa within two days. I gave Mick my card and asked him to keep in touch. I had Mary’s number since since I texted her the photo of the three of us. “Yup, we showed our daughter the picture and told her all about you.”
“Have a great time in Tennessee this weekend,” I said.
“Oh, we will.” Mick said. “You take care.”
And that was it. It’s hard to bear sometimes how much care and concern people have for one another, for strangers, for me (though I’m not unique). Maybe it sounds callous: hard to bear. Yet I say this with gratitude for everyone’s generosity and these mini-relationships that form effortlessly. It’s still such a daily culture shock.
About relationships…For many years, I worked an organization called Common Ground. We were primarily an HIV prevention and care agency, but our programs were as much about addressing the addictions, mental illness, homelessness, poverty, health inequity, and isolation experienced by the people we served. (Common Ground still exists but is now been subsumed by a larger health clinic.) In an earlier post, You Didn’t Build That, I mention gratitude toward the supports I received and am continuing to receive to make this journey possible. At Common Ground for one of our agency’s multi-year strategic plans, my brilliant friend and colleague, Mark Fairfield, coined the phrase “Relationships Are Primary.” In its simplest terms, the way this concept was applied at Common Ground was that, as important as the services were that we were providing (medical and behavioral health care, addiction treatment, a drop-in center for HIV positive folks and homeless youth, clean syringes, access to housing, HIV, hepatitis and STD testing and education and on and on), the relationships we forged with one another – clients, staff, volunteers, board members – had primacy. Relating to and resonating with one another is our most precious resource. Building trust, and an atmosphere of support and acceptance, fostering an environment that’s comfortable and safe for everyone, and creating for a space for people to feel accepted and cared for; that was absolutely foundational to the work we did. This very non-institutional approach was a TON of extra work, because there are easier, less complex, more corporate, more hierarchical approaches. In this way, we were a model organization; we were involved in a sort of turn-the-hierarchy-upside-down-and-shake-it-up social experiment; and we were often successful. But we are humans, and humans are imperfect – and almost as often it felt like we were struggling to stay afloat. Well, we were.
All this to say, I’ve been thinking all the time how right we were in prioritizing relationships. It’s the people, stupid. This journey is enriched and enlivened every day by the relationships I’m having, albeit brief, with people along the way. The culture out here in middle America is way more organically help-your-neighbor or help-a-stranger than the culture of Los Angeles and many other places in the country I’ve lived or spent significant amounts of time. I know how obvious and cliché that all sounds. Maybe I’m more open as a stranger than I am as myself in my own habitat. What’s the difference anyway?
In addition to the supports offered by specific people, I can’t help but open this can of worms: I am also supported by my privilege as white and male. Well, I’m not opening the can. It’s already open and I’ve been eating right out of it with a spoon handed to me. Hopefully you read this entry It’s a Spiritual Journey, Ok? There, I Said It!. In it I talk about how I keep recommending Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist to people. Her perspective on privilege is basically: acknowledge it and accept it and move on. We don’t need to keep beating down ourselves and each other for being born into whatever situation we were born into. Feeling guilty, judging others who have more privilege than me, interjecting all the ways that I don’t have privilege to prove I’m oppressed – these are not actions to create an equitable society, or to level the playing field, or to promote social justice issues.
That being said, this entry isn’t some sort of treatise on privilege, or an entry to bash rich, white, Christian heteronormative males (or any combo thereof). It’s just incredibly important for me to acknowledge one key element of my personhood that is a great support in completing this journey: white skin. (BTW if you do want to read a GREAT, pull-no-punches primer on white privilege, read Tim Wise’s White Like Me)
The current discourse about white privilege that has gone mainstream (for lack of a better word) has arisen largely due to the response to black people being murdered in cold blood by law enforcement. In the last three years, I’ve gone even deeper in acknowledging the advantages I’ve had and have read, observed and listened more. But I’m not a stranger to the concept. At Common Ground, we did a ton of hard work on racial justice, gender and sexual orientation issues, diversity and inclusion, privilege, you name it. It was always messy and often painful. We couldn’t solve it, so we kept working on it. It was intense. And for the most part, it was more painful and intense for the people of color who participated than for the white people, though the white people were significantly outnumbered. In 2009, way after the concept of white privilege was beat into me (haha!) at Common Ground, I rode my bike across America – and at some point mid-journey, I had that aha! moment. As a white person, I am more or less entitled to enter almost any small town in the U.S. I can spend my money there. I can stay in the hotel. I can pitch my tent in the park. I can sit in the library all day long and write my blog. I can probably fall asleep in here. People will exuberantly invite me into their homes and feed me, sometimes even allowing me to enter onto their property before they even meet me, and stay after they’ve gone. It’s weird by any urban culture standards for sure, but as I travel through the vast geography, I do not present a threat – and having white skin is my ID card. (Yes, being on a bicycle and being 5’7” and 140ish lbs. doesn’t hurt in the non-threatening department.) And as a man, I have fewer worries of being victimized or threatened.
In writing this, in no way am I making any assumptions that any of the lovely and generous people would react differently to me if I weren’t white. That’s not the point. I’m not out here to challenge people’s motives or enlighten them with my evolved ways. It’s just a shout-out of sorts. A neutral one. Not motivated by humorless, self-serving guilt. But…have I seen a person of color touring on his or her bike cross-country? No, I haven’t. I also haven’t seen many people of color in these small towns I’ve visited. A few, yes, but not many.
Despite my skin color, I am cautious on this journey. Not just with the weather, but also with people. I am cautious, because I’m afraid sometimes. I am cautious, because I am a stranger. I am cautious, because I’m vulnerable out here so far away from the people who truly know me. I’m cautious, because it’s hard to trust people and take them at face value – and that’s because of where I live and because of the bad shit I have experienced in life that makes trusting others a moment-to-moment challenge. I am up to this challenge.
And I am also cautious because of the ways I am different. Out here in white-conservative-Christian-space, I turn the volume down. The progressive lefty volume control. The anti-Trump one. The #MeToo one. The #BlackLivesMatter one. The Jewish one (I see one Confederate flag crossed with a swastika, and that’s all I need). Lower the Pride flag, furl it for a spell. It is a bit of a dance, this blending in, while being utterly obvious (fully-loaded bike in Lycra cycling clothes). As undeniably white as I am, I do stick out, and I do feel so, so different. Earlier this week, when I thought the dude at Subway in Yankton, South Dakota (yes, yes, I’m getting ahead of myself again) might be flirting with me, I thought, there’s no way I’m going down that path. Hey, I realize that I might be missing out on some experiences (e.g., getting laid) by being less revealing. But, hell, have you been reading this blog? The experiences I’m having are plentiful enough.
Hum hum-hum hum. Cluck cluck-cluck cluck!
Even though I write from the future, the above is what I took notes on the day I rode to Henry, Illinois. (And I took almost no pictures.) God, there’s so much more I want to say about all of this. Maybe not say more, per se, but say it better. However, I must pedal forward to catch up.
When I arrived in Henry after an awesome downhill to the Illinois River. I hit 36mph according to the GarminConnect app. Great job, Whitey! Henry is almost a little resort town. It’s slogan is Best Town in Illinois by a Dam Site! Never mind all those boating opportunities, where’s that pool I keep hearing about?
I am hot as hell when I get there and a little dehydrated. I see a police car (which I have no issue approaching because of all of the above…) and ask the cop about the pool and camping in the park. He tells me that the pool and the park are separate. The pool is where the shower is, but not where I can camp. One is down the hill and the other is up. I’m not even sure if I’m up or down. Huh? I need water before I figure anything out. I see a DQ. Yes!I ask the ladies in there if they would kindly fill my water bottles, and they oblige. A family of locals asks me if I’m camping in the park and enquires about the usual subjects (where I’m from, where I’m cycling to, where I started, how long it’s been, how long until I’m done). They tell me that there’s a hotel down the gravel road that’s decent. I level with myself. Do I really want the fishbowl experience in this heat and talk to people all night, or do I want to lie down on the floor of a hotel room and speak to no one. I get the last available room at the Henry Harbor Inn. Done, for $60 including tax. I ask about the restaurant next door, and the owner sends me back up the hill a hundred yards or so to a Mexican place. Hmm…Mexican food in rural Illinois? “It’s owned by Mexicans,” she assures me. I order enchiladas rancheras to be on the safe side, and they’re friggin’ deliciosas. Next stop, DQ to get ice cream. And I collapse in the cool, dank hotel room. Collapse in a good way.
Day 16 is much like the previous day. At this point in the trip, I’m calling these Get ‘er Done days. But I’m not crazy about the nomenclature. Gotta get something better. Get ‘em Done? Less gendered. I have to think about this. I leave really early that morning, wanting to avoid some of the heat, and maybe, just maybe, I can make it all the way to Muscatine, Iowa. It’s over 115 miles away, and I need a rest day. Maybe two, so I can handlebar-confess enough to catch up!
The first 40 miles are a breeze. I ask myself, can you do another 75? Fuck yes, I can! I don’t stop for real food until I get to Kewanee, at about mile 50. It’s not even noon yet, but I eat lunch. Gotta fuel. And add extra sunscreen. The previous night at the Henry Harbor Inn, I shaved for the first time in almost two weeks and it created what I thought was a funny pattern of tan, burn, and white on my face. I posted a pic, thinking I looked kinda sexy, and boy did people lecture me about sunburn and windburn and proper application of sunscreen. It wasn’t that bad! I put the photo through a filter to make it more dramatic. I didn’t expect all the feedback. Someone even said I looked ‘miserable.’ It wasn’t my face that was burned, not really; it was my left calf, which I must’ve missed getting really well with the sunscreen. I am definitely a user of sunscreen. I generally use 50 on my face and 30 for the rest. Truthfully, I wasn’t putting it on as much throughout the day as I should have. To ward off some of the sun, I put a hat with a visor on under my helmet. Voila!
I know I must be getting closer to the Mississippi, not just because of what the map says but because of the proliferation of insects. It’s the first time I’ve used insect repellent during sunlight hours.
I clocked in at 115 miles at the Mississippi River, took some photos, and crossed into Iowa. The People of Iowa Welcome You, said the sign. We shall see, Iowa, just how welcoming you are. I’m sad to be leaving Indiana and Illinois, but I’m eager to get to Phase III: Riding Across Iowa. At 116.70 miles, Day 16 was the longest yet!