Midwest Bicycle Tour: June 11-21, 2009 (Route: 1, 2)

June 11: Home to Brush, CO

I watched Sarah until a building occluded my view. I knew that I would not see her again until I had crossed a thousand miles. The lump in my throat hurt. A lot of work and uncertainty divided this moment from our reunion. None of the approximately one million seconds would pass unheeded and unfelt, as in ordinary life. Was I foolish? I don't know. I do know that what we choose to do determines who we are.

Setting aside my doubts, I focused on the bicycle. While I had tested the balance the previous night around the neighborhood, I was riding it in traffic and at real speed for the first time. Was the load actually balanced? Were the attachments secure? I ticked off the list of equipment one more time. Had I forgotten anything that I could not easily acquire on the road? All systems seemed nominal -- except that my throat still hurt and the visuals seemed a tad blurry.

Most of the day passed without incident. I was hypersensitive to how I was feeling, having not ridden a long day since last October. Of course, the muni (mountain unicycling) had actually strengthened me over the past few months, so I wasn't overly concerned. But there is a difference between slow and fast twitch muscle fiber, and I thought that there was some possibility that my buddies the slow twitchers had converted to fast twitchism.

I rode towards white puffy clouds in blue skies through early afternoon while watching cumulonimbus clouds develop in my mirror. I later learned that a storm was migrating northeast from Denver at 25 mph, so it was inevitable that we would cross paths. I exited Highway 76 into Roggen when the skies darkened. The next reliable shelter was at least an hour away. In Roggen, I first toured the town: a closed and shuttered motel that appeared to have a few permanent residents, a few ruins, and a post office. Then on the post woman's advice, I looped back over the highway to the gas station. There I munched on junk food while waiting for the storm to arrive and then depart.

The first few days of a tour are always a little uncomfortable socially, and this occasion was no different. When I replied that I was from Boulder, a mere hour by car, and headed to Chicago, a mere two hours by plane, a shadow of skepticism crossed the station attendant's face. But I knew something that she apparently didn't: all journeys begin sometime and somewhere. I wonder if Lewis and Clark had this problem early in their expedition.

Once the storm passed, I hopped back on the road to follow in its wake. It treated me to a light show for the next hour.

In Wiggins, I cooked an afternoon meal of pasta and sardines at a rest stop, talked with a portly recumbent cyclist from Stirling, who was at that time driving, cleaned the cooking gear, and rolled on to the exit to Ft. Morgan, where I was overcome by hunger. Long story short: pasta and sardines don't fuel 100-mile days, and I quit cooking after the fifth day. At the exit to Ft. Morgan, a Snickers came to the rescue.

I reached Brush near sunset, picked up some goods at the local grocery, and pitched a tent in the same park that Sarah and I had used last year.

June 12: Brush, CO to West of Benkelman, NE

A gigantic anvil cloud had loomed over my shoulder as I had cycled the last ten miles into Brush. About an hour after sunset, an incredible storm arrived. I revel in storms. The sky flickered and grumbled almost continuously, but I was safely encased in a top-of-the-line mountaineering tent. I'll admit that I had a moment or two where I thought it might be more prudent to dash out in my evening wear (buck naked) to the nearest building than stay in the tent.

Speaking of my tent, I'm going to indulge myself in a few minutes of writing about my equipment. My tent is a Hammerhead 2 from Mountain Hardwear that we bought used via Craigslist. One pole, already bent when we bought it, snapped on our Mt. Evans trip last summer, so Mountain Hardwear sent a full set of replacement poles for free. Inside the tent, I use a REI-brand compact thermarest that, I report with joy, is actually showing signs of wear (I've used it about 35 times in the past two years), a sleeping bag liner, and on cool nights, a sleeping bag that I inherited from Sarah via Ken and Aletha when she purchased one in her size last year. My sleeping gear fits neatly into a dry bag that is strapped onto my rear rack along with a tarp and the tent poles.

The bicycle is my trusty Trek 520 that I acquired via Craigslist last year and had so far used on one short tour and throughout the winter and spring for commuting and day rides. It has mustache handlebars, which I prefer to drop bars. They offer an aero position -- important for countering headwinds -- and a powerful and comfortable climbing position, as well as serious leverage for standing when loaded. The shifters are bar-end. I added a Blackburn front rack that I acquired through Craigslist (where else?) over the winter, to which I attach made-in-Boulder small panniers (acquired from Craigslist). I use my cheap "TransIt" commuting bags on the rear because they're waterproof. They started looking like they would fall apart about a month after I purchased them, and since then they've carried over a year's worth of groceries, withstood five weeks of touring, and commuted with me everyday. The only new item is my Brooks saddle, which I added last October. It was already fairly broken in at the beginning of the trip; one kilomile later, it's the most comfortable saddle my posterior bicycle interface has ever encountered. The other luxury is a pair of Speedplay Frogs with a knee saver on the right side to compensate for my funky right knee and a pair of mountain biking shoes with recessed pedal interface. I brought an old pair of sneakers for the evenings, compressing them together with a strap to take a small amount of space.

I also use a mirror. For a few percent reduction in forward visuals, I gain continuous knowledge about everything happening around me. On roads without shoulders, I monitor approaching vehicles until I see that they are responding to my presence. Cyclists should get over the nerd factor of mirrors. A Tour de France rider can go without as the only car chasing him has food, water, and a coach yelling in his ear. But the rest of us mortals should recognize the value of doubling our field of vision.

Given that I was intending to ride in some conservative areas of the country that might not appreciate my sculpted rear end, I had decided to try synthetic underwear and normal sports shorts instead of cycling shorts. Combined with the Brooks saddle, this choice worked out well. The underwear and shorts dry out quickly, unlike the chamois of cycling shorts, so this casual style is more comfortable for all-day riding. They also dry overnight on the top tube after being washed. And I didn't stand out in stores as I had on previous trips.

Anyhow, I wiped down the rain fly in the morning and repacked the bicycle. As I continued eastward, my unpacking and repacking technique improved to the point that I actually enjoyed these evening and morning rituals, even when the rain fly was wet.

Then I set off with the intention of crossing into Nebraska that evening. The previous day's headwind was countered by a tailbreeze, so I maintained a respectable clip all day through semi-arid landscape. Crushed turtles littered the road; I only encountered one on the shoulder that was whole but was regrettably headed north. I briefly considered taking it along (given that it would probably be crushed by the end of the day anyway) but decided that it would likely be unwilling company. Nothing slows one down like an unwilling turtle. I also feared interrupting an evolutionary trend towards either automobile weight-bearing shells or white line-aversion.

On this day, I engaged in a lot of arithmetic. I have a habit of doing arithmetic when cycling, particularly on climbs or long rides. Fortunately, this ride was long enough that I worked through a lot of fascinating arithmetic early on and then moved onto new ways of entertaining myself.

What did I compute? The number of times the wheels would turn on the trip (about 700,000). The number of calories that I would burn (about 50,000). The number of times that I would turn the cranks per day (about 30,000) and on the trip (about 300,000). The number of square miles that I would see (about 6000). The distance that the earth would move about the sun during my trip (about 20 million miles). Hypotheses about the sun's and our movement about the galaxy's center in that time and the galaxy's movement relative to our current position. Many (many) other quantities and variations that I won't list here.

Entering Nebraska was a significant event. Folks started waving on the road and acting decently in roadside stores almost as soon as I had crossed the border. The shoulder of US 34/6 is also generous throughout Nebraska, while the traffic volume is low.

I camped behind a stand of trees south of 34 and 27 miles into Nebraska. That evening was the one and only time that I camped beside the road; I stayed in small town parks and occasionally RV parks when I wanted a shower for the rest of the trip. I encountered very few "forests" in the midwest that would make for pleasant camping; conversely, I encountered only friendly and welcoming folks in small towns who made the journey all the more pleasant.

June 13: Benkelman, NE to Arapahoe, NE

On the third day, I entered a mental groove and started to entertain myself in new ways. For the reader's pleasure, though with some fear of embarrassing myself, I'll try to recall some of the more humorous periods throughout this log.

The western part of Nebraska has interludes of hills that extend for fifteen miles and more. But I of course couldn't know when they would end. Each summit revealed only a few more rollers leading to another local maximum that blocked further view. Any one of these local maxima could be the final one that led back onto a plain. So I started singing a tune that went something like this (the reader will have to supply the tune; mine was basically a simple country melody):

Oh when will these hills end?
Oh when will these hills end?
I'm not complainin'
I just want to know
  when these hills end.

If I were a hawk way up in the sky,
I'd see me just crawlin' along.
I'd wonder why I don't spread my wings and fly.
It's easier here up in the sky.

Oh when ...

If I were a butterfly,
I'd see me cranking by.
I'd wonder why and where I was going.
It's easier being a butterfly.

Oh when ...
Soon after singing the bit about the hawk, I encountered a canyon over which three hawks soared. Small canyons decorate the landscape of southwest Nebraska. Each is a vibrant self-contained ecosystem. In one, a family of deer glided towards me -- I think to see what I was, as they looked directly at me, and they swiveled their ears forward -- which surprised me because most animals other than dogs tended to scurry away.

In McCook, I stopped for a milkshake at a Baskin Robbins. The woman who made my shake is going to be a senior in high school and intends to study education to become an elementary school teacher. Unlike a certain Baskin Robbins employee later in the trip, she loaded my shake with ice cream, so I cruised on that fuel for at least twenty miles.

However, I knew that I was not keeping up with my caloric needs. I decided to stay that night for the first time in a town to be close to a calorie source. I chose Arapahoe, the last of a string of relatively close towns before a jump to Holdrege, and cruised the streets looking for an official person. At the town park, a fellow called the mayor to ask permission for me to pitch my tent there, but she wasn't home; another offered his front yard. But then a policewoman cruised by and suggested another place that would be less brilliantly lit than the park. She drove by later to make sure that I was happy with the spot. That evening was just a taste of the kind of hospitality that I encountered throughout Nebraska and Iowa.

With a safe corner to camp, I roamed the town looking for a local eatery. The only place that was open, though, was a Subway at the intersection of 34 and 283. After a brief but intense moral struggle, rather biased by my grumbling stomach, I decided that I would order a 12" turkey subway. As it happened, I ate meat on six further occasions on the trip. Small-town midwest is just not the area to be picky about food. I don't regret it even now. I avoid meat (except for sardines and mackerel) for practical reasons, and at several points during the trip, it simply wasn't practical.

June 14: Arapahoe, NE to Holdrege, NE

I rolled out of camp as usual with the sun, but I felt crabby for the first time. From previous trips, I knew that my attitude could mean only one thing: I was seriously falling behind on eating. Recalling the past few days, I realized that digestive distress on the first day had canceled what had been a strong eating effort (it takes my fuel-processing system a day or two to adapt to touring loads); that I had been lax in eating on the second; and that the renewed eating effort on the third had probably just begun to address the needs from the first two days. I decided that I would ride the 32 miles into Holdrege and find a motel. I had already considered this plan the previous evening, so I think I had been aware even then that I must either pay off calorie debt or file for Chapter 11 and reorganize into a photosynthesizing creature.

Therefore, I fueled the hilly trip into Holdrege with several Snickers bars, checked into the Plains Motel, fueled a walk to the local grocery store with a slice of pizza, and then bought a box of cheerios, a half gallon of milk, a half gallon of grapefruit juice, several yogurts, several bananas, a family-size Stouffer's mac-and-cheese, and a cake. By the time that I left the next morning, only half the cake and a little milk and cheerios remained. I also left behind a pound of peanut butter and a horrible Tom Clancy paperback that I had needlessly trucked from Boulder.

I thought that I'd have to stick to a three-days on, one-day off schedule for the rest of the trip, but after the fourth day I continued to eat well. Hence, I cycled 740 miles over the next seven days.

June 15: Holdrege, NE to Fairmont, NE

Somewhere in Nebraska I came up with my "Slow Twitch" jingle, an ode to my slow-twitch muscle fibers that allow me to ride all day. I know that most of my readers don't get their kicks through physically intensive activities, so I'll take a moment to let them in on a secret: what it feels like to me to ride all day is definitely not what it feels like when most people exercise, and it's all due to my abundant slow-twitch muscle fibers. These fibers thrive on twitching all the livelong day as long as I'm not sprinting. Cycle touring is different from, say, criterium bicycle racing in that one develops a sustainable level of effort. Hence, I never feel pain associated with lactic acid build-up, and I certainly never work anaerobically. Additionally, the many thousands of miles that I've ridden have resulted in an unconscious spinning technique. As a result, my usual perception is that I'm sitting on a motor from which I get some feedback to select the proper gear. Unfortunately, I also sometimes feel pain from the inside of my right knee and outside of my right ankle because my funky knee prevents a perfect transfer of power. And I have a keen sensor in the fuel tank.

In general, cycle touring (and I'm sure other endurance activities) reminds one of one's animal and chemical nature. Consider a Snickers bar: it has 280 calories, 100 from fat and protein. The fat and protein slow down the absorption of sugar. A rough calculation suggests that a Snickers bar should be worth 12-15 miles, depending on the terrain and wind, assuming that one is also eating generous breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Sure enough, on days when I relied on Snickers bars (that is, days that my supply didn't melt minutes from the source), I would suddenly start thinking about food approximately 12 miles after my last Snickers bar. If I waited -- which I didn't -- I would become hungry. But if I stopped right then and ate, I maintained a fuel level that allowed all-day riding.

Salts are also important. At one point, my attitude inexplicably plummeted. I knew from experience that something was up with a subsystem. Checking the requirements, I saw that I had recently refueled, that I had slept well the night before, that all pain sensors were reporting acceptable levels, that the hydration systems were running basically normally -- ah, but wait: it was the first really hot day. I stopped and put a few tablespoons of VitaLite in a bottle. VitaLite is a mix of glucose and salts. If it tastes salty, it's not necessary. But if it's sweet, then bingo: lack of salts is the problem. It tasted like mead. I was soon whistling again.

That afternoon, a threatening set of clouds developed over Highway 6. I considered seeking shelter in Harvard. But as I didn't see rain anywhere -- and, in any case, I had rain gear -- I decided to make the short jump to Sutton. Again, I didn't see any signs of rain, but the headwind grew fiercer. I made the final jump to Fairmont and determined that rain or no, I was tired of fighting the wind. During the first half of the trip, I experienced significantly more headwind than tailwind. It increased each afternoon, so I had to weigh a few extra miles of hard progress versus covering that same distance quickly in the gentle morning breeze. Once I reached a town near the hundred mile mark, I'd stop.

I didn't meet anyone local to Fairmont, but I met a visiting family in the town park that consisted, as I understood it, of two daughters by separate men, the mother, and one of the men, TJ. TJ is 43, currently unemployed, and apparently quite a basketball player. He regularly played pick-up games with Scottie Pippin and had a basketball scholarship. Unfortunately, he made some poor decisions in college and lost the scholarship, but he seems to have accepted those decisions and their consequences and is not bitter. He continues to play and is in remarkable shape; I thought he was at least ten years younger than his 43 years. I managed to ask an intelligent question or two about the game that led to his explaining why players hang from the rim after dunking: it's not for show but rather to avoid colliding with the defenders. He's witnessed an incident in which the dunker misjudged his post-dunk timing and was seriously injured.

I also talked with the daughters and led the elder through a little arithmetic about my daily travel. She grew impatient after only a couple of calculations, but at least a few brain cells fired.

The clouds had developed significantly by that point, so I arranged my tent under the park shelter. While certainly unnecessary, it would also have been odd to set up the tent outside of the shelter just for fun. As I was readying for bed, I heard an engine rev, then another. Despite Fairmont's being all of a few streets long, the local youth apparently like to cruise in the evening, so I saw the same cars and trucks many times. They finally quieted down; then the storm began. Wow.

June 16: Fairmont, NE to Nebraska City, NE

Sometime the previous evening I must have punctured the rear tube. It was flat within minutes of starting. A flat at this time was particularly annoying because a calm morning had replaced the strong headwind of the previous evening. I also noticed that the tread was almost gone. For these two reasons, I decided to try to pump-and-monitor my way to Lincoln where I thought I might buy a replacement tire.

I stopped in Exeter for breakfast. There I met a fellow who had cycled across Iowa six times, mostly with RAGBRAI but once on a self-supported trip. He told me about a Trek shop in Lincoln, to which he was himself headed, and about the roads ahead. I think he was getting some vicarious kicks because he seemed pretty excited to meet me, even paying for my breakfast -- my standard: orange juice and fruit pie, almost 700 calories in a small package -- against my protests. It was one of the many times that people mistook me for a poor student. In any case, having confirmed that Lincoln has a bike shop, I continued pumping and monitoring.

This strategy worked for just over twenty miles. But I was having to stop increasingly frequently, and I still had over thirty miles to go. I thus pulled over at a machine shop and patched the tube in the shade of the building. Some tires are easy to pop on and off rims; some are not. Mine are most definitely not, so repairing the flat required about an hour, a few hundred curses, and several hundred precious calories. The upshot of these tires (Continental touring tires) is that I almost never get flats. The current flat was almost certainly a consequence of my having let the tire become too worn.

With the flat fixed, I sailed on for another ten miles to a Dairy Queen on the outskirts of Crete. Over a large Snickers Blizzard, I studied the map and realized that if I did not go through Lincoln, I could save almost fifteen miles and avoid unnecessary traffic and stress. The only problem was that I had intended to replace the tire. So I had to weigh the fifteen miles and traffic against potentially fixing more flats. However, I was carrying a 28mm folding tire that I could use if necessary. All things considered, I determined to skip Lincoln.

Once I had made my way to Highway 2, I stopped at a Subway to refuel. Sometime in the last couple of days, I had discovered the joys of soda, particularly soda on ice. Something about Pepsi flowing over ice is particularly alluring when I'm hot and low on sugar. As I write this, for example, it doesn't appeal to me. But I had severe cravings for it throughout the trip and drank as much as 48 ounces in one day. Before the trip, I had read that caffeine is not actually a diuretic as is widely believed; moreover, it improves the performance of endurance athletes, easing muscle pain and boosting energy. I was afraid at first that it would interfere with my sleeping, but I discovered that cycling all day apparently accelarates the metabolizing of caffeine. I never had a problem falling asleep. Consequently, I had developed a habit of drinking a large soda with my midday meal.

A mother and her three daughters were eating at this Subway on the southeast side of Lincoln, a developing suburb. They came over to talk when they had finished. The mother asked where I was from and where I was headed, then expressed her desire to ride in RAGBRAI next year. She looked fit, so I assume that she is an avid cyclist. I asked the two older daughters if they also wanted to ride in it. They're unsure, but the mother is apparently encouraging them. Anyhow, they left. I thought it had been a pleasant if superficial conversation and returned to my sandwich. When I had finished and attempted to put on my right riding glove, something blocked my hand. It was a $50 bill. Once again, I had been mistaken for a student.

One of the reasons that I tour is to remind myself how good people can be, even if most are misguided. (This means, of course, that I have to choose where I go wisely, as cities are typically unfriendly places.) Even though I didn't need the money, I got to add her generosity to the list of good things that I had experienced on this trip. As it happened, there was a man on the corner who was out of work and behind on his rent. So that $50 bill made the day of at least three people: the mother, since she got a thrill from giving, mine, and the gentleman's.

With the energy from the Subway and the soda and the good feelings, I flew over the forty miles of hills of Highway 2 to Nebraska City. There I pulled up to a bicycle shop five minutes before they closed and purchased a new tire. I strapped it to the gear on the rear rack, stopped by a local cafe, and then headed to an RV park just above the bridge into Iowa. Changing the tire was a fiasco not worth going into. Let's just say that either the new tube was defective, or I punctured it while struggling to put the new tire on -- and I've never punctured a tube before in that way. The mosquitoes added to the fun. But I ended that warm day with a shower.

June 17: Nebraska City, NE to Sharpsburg, IA

I crossed into the Loess Hill region of Iowa early Wednesday morning. At the bottom of the climb in Waubonsie State Park, I encountered a fellow traveler. Frank has been on the road for five years and claims to have covered a hundred thousand miles, but I doubt it. He complained too much about riding distances each day that were insufficient to accumulate anywhere close to that many miles. Unfortunately, I think that Frank suffers from a psychological problem; otherwise, given the amount of complaining that he did, he would surely have stopped by now. He also complained extensively about how little help people provided. All in all, it left a rather odd aftertaste. It also reconfirmed my belief that maintaining one's appearance while on the road is essential to encountering the good side of folks. Fortunately, he did not even suggest that we ride together, and I quickly lost him on the climb.

I departed from Highway 2 after about ten miles. Iowa does not pave its shoulders, so I took county roads almost all the way to Illinois. Thus I experienced true rural midwest.

Having seen the signs advertising the Loess Hills, I knew that I was in for some extensive climbing. Much of riding long distances comes down to playing mental games and seeing past illusions. Deep rolling hills are particularly interesting in this respect. At the top of a hill, the coming climb looks ridiculously steep because of foreshortening. Then it looks even steeper because its angle relative to the descent is great: double what its angle is relative to gravity. Its actual angle only becomes evident at the trough. So one trick to riding rolling hills all day is simply to laugh at the illusion.

Another invalid conclusion because of foreshortening is that the road that one actually rides must be much greater than what the map indicates. In reality, even a 10% climb results in little additional mileage: 1002 + 102 = 10100, whose square-root is less than 101.

That said, rolling hills do cause elevation gain to accumulate surprisingly quickly. I rode 80 miles that day with no flat sections and deep rolling hills. Even supposing only 6% grades, that's 6% x 40 miles = 2.4 miles of climbing, not too shabby for Iowa.

Wednesday was also the first day of unusually intense -- according to the locals -- heat and humidity. And I tried to take the rollers by standing. Standing works well for speed and use of energy, but my right leg can't take 80 miles of it. By the late afternoon, my pain subsystem was reporting worrisome levels. I decided to stop early in Sharpsburg. As it turned out, I was glad that I did.

I rolled up to the the Spring General Store around 6:00, where Joe, 83, and Phyllis, nearly the same age, were holding down the fort while Linda, either Phyllis's mother or daughter -- I didn't understand which -- was shopping "in town." Linda owns the store, runs the post office, and is the mayor of this town of approximately one hundred people. Linda serves a public dinner (i.e., the noon-time meal) each day, and Joe and Phyllis offered to reheat some for me, which I gladly accepted. A meal of mac-and-cheese, corn, beans, cottage cheese, toast, grilled cheese sandwich, apple crisp, and lemonade came to a whopping $6.26, so I overtipped with a $10 bill.

Joe owned a gas station and repair shop across the street from the general store through 1983, when his wife died. His main business was patching tires. His mother was full Cherokee Indian and lived on a reservation in Oklahoma. Both Joe and Phyllis, like many of the people in Nebraska and Iowa, have extensive families. Some children and grandchildren stay close; others migrate into the cities. Joe and Phyllis have been a couple for almost twenty years.

After dinner and conversation, I set up my tent in the town park and introduced myself to a mother and her two high school daughters. The younger, Paige, was practicing softball pitching, while Bailey watched and their mother, whose name I have forgotten, played catcher. We talked briefly. When I returned from washing up in the village hall, the father, Paul, had arrived and taken over catching duties. I talked to the mother about the local high school in Lenox. They have one math teacher and one science teacher to cover grades 7-12, so the offerings exclude calculus and physics. Two students took senior math last year, which apparently consists of pre-calculus. However, they take their sports seriously.

The girls and their mother left, and Paul and I started talking. Paul is intelligent and introspective. We talked for several hours about farming, food systems, technology's impact on farming, authentic living, and many other topics. He invited me into the cab of his 30 series John Deere sprayer -- which, to give you an idea of the size, requires climbing a ladder -- and showed me the works. The controls now consists of a joystick and a touch-screen computer that is the interface to a sophisticated GPS-controlled system. Spraying was once a complex task because it required constantly accounting for terrain, speed, overlap, turns, particle size, and winds. The computer now adjusts for all these factors in real time. However, Paul says the machine frequently breaks so that he relies on his old skills. When I asked how the new farmers who learn only on this technology will survive without his depth of experience, he said that he had never thought about that question before and that it was definitely a concern. He also said that if he reached a computer geek at John Deere when the system broke, he just hung up. Working with one was useless. I learned much more from our conversation that I won't repeat here.

Paul had to leave when his wife called for the second time.

June 18: Sharpsburg, IA to Iconium, IA

My knee and ankle recovered sufficiently overnight, with the help of vitamin IB, to ride; however, I decided that standing on rollers was definitely out of the question. I worked out a new strategy for tackling them comfortably. While slower, I was able to ride until almost sundown and thus covered just over 100 miles. The terrain also flattened somewhat as I migrated east.

Rathbun Lake is the one area where I might have wanted a camera. Most of the other scenery on this trip was engaging without necessarily being a worthwhile subject for photography.

I was ready for another shower that night, so I stayed at an RV park just west of Iconium on the north side of the lake. The owners were duly impressed by my trip and said that I should enjoy their facilities free of charge, although they encouraged me to try the bar and grill, which I did. Therefore, I felt bad the next morning when I discovered that the basketball pole against which I had leaned my bicycle was no longer completely vertical, having been seriously compromised by rust. As it would be several hours before others were awake, I left a note by the pole explaining what had happened and that they should email me if they felt I should cover the damage. I haven't received an email so far. So either they didn't care, they haven't seen the pole, or the note blew away. On reflection, I decided that I didn't feel terrible since I had potentially saved them from someone's injuring herself on their property. The experience reconfirmed my idea that the bicycle should always be leaned away from the tent.

My evening experience was mixed. A family had driven in to camp in tents. The mothers, who proudly told me that they were both married and that their husbands would arrive later, warned me that with all the children, there would be a bit of noise. I said that was fine with me. I don't know why, but I've mellowed out a lot over the past year or so, and I've discovered that not only do children not bother me, but that I'm actually pretty good with them. This evening was no different. The children, of whom Allysa, 9, particularly stood out, were immediately taken by me, probably because I simply listened to them. Alyssa is bright, but I fear that she will be yet another victim of society and bad parenting. Her father, also named Aaron, is an insecure twirp through no fault of his own. I was trying to listen to the children, but he kept interrupting to tell me about one macho thing or another. His brother Kyle, who may be a father -- he's not sure -- was even worse. He became angry over a petty incident and strutted around in general.

One of the mothers had predicted that they would be noisy during the night, but the children were silent. Instead, Aaron and his wife bickered loudly until dawn.

June 19: Iconium, IA to Biggsville, IL

Woken by their bickering, I packed quickly, wrote the note, and returned to the road with the sun.

The days remained hot and humid, so I worked to keep myself entertained. Since nobody could hear me, I felt free to sing and whistle (I can actually more or less hold a tune when whistling). I played Elvis's "An American Trilogy" in my head when I felt particularly hot on a climb. It always gives me chills.

Dogs occasionally chased after me. That day was no different. "Pooch," I'd say, "it's way too hot for you to be out chasing a bicycle. Why don't you go on home?" I might have added a colorful word or two. They always saw reason eventually.

I saw a lot of road kill throughout the ride. Crushed turtles dotted the shoulders in Colorado; possums, raccoons, and deer lay everywhere; a hawk somehow died on the road in Iowa, probably struck by a truck while scratching for lift; and frogs met their maker on the roads of eastern Iowa and Illinois. The first time I encountered a frog, I was a bit heat dazzled, so I gave into a little punning. "Frog, I guess it was just too froggin' hot for you." Fortunately, the audience was dead.

Insects hitched rides with some frequency. One in particular boarded onto my left lens. I thought it would make its way down to the bar, but it seemed to like the viewing gallery. I offered to cut its fare in half if it would help with the cranking, but it declined. Then when two dogs couldn't be talked out of chasing me for a bit, I proposed that it man (insect?) the shotgun to earn a free ride, but it still declined. After a while, I started thinking it might have hit my lens a little too hard, but then it disembarked at the next town.

As I said, it was hot.

A storm brewed in the late afternoon. I continued to crank through Lowell, then dashed under a porch when the clouds burst. Unfortunately, the house that I had thought was empty was actually occupied by a great-grandmother, and I'm sorry to say that I startled her. But Betty invited me in while it poured and told me about her extensive lineage. She currently works in the cafeteria at the school in New London, which serves all grades, after having retired briefly from working at a Motorola plant when it closed. Once the radio indicated all clear, I returned to the road and passed through Geode State Park. Oddly, the sky turned threatening again. When it began to sprinkle, I took cover under a porch. A woman drove up and said that the storm was going to hit in five minutes and that I ought to go into the basement of the adjacent church.

"Basement?" I thought. Awesome. I thanked her and moved over to the church. Once I made sure the doors were open, I took up position under the entranceway. The gust front hit a few minutes later, blowing water against gravity and bending mature trees. Rain plummeted, and thunder almost coincided with lightning. Then it was over. I lassoed onto the storm and got a free ride into Burlington. I encountered several felled trees over the next day.

After refueling just west of Burlington, I crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, where I discovered that Illinois isn't big on shoulders.

The county from Gulf Port through Biggsville was badly damaged in last year's floods. According to the locals, the flood reached a pork processing plant north of them and washed toxic waste downriver. FEMA came in for a while but then cleared out, leaving the county to foot the bill and continue the clean-up effort. Unfortunately, few revenue-generating businesses remain. This year's storms have also left the region flooded, though not nearly as badly, so I kept cycling until I found a designated camp site just west of Biggsville. Thinking that I would find dry ground there, I followed the arrows -- down and down and down, until I reached some boggy ground. However, I was there and the sun was setting, so I found a relatively dry spot.

In the camp, I met Leroy and his wife Nancy. Leroy is a truck driver and carpenter, and he proudly showed me around his 1974 trailer RV that he had spent the last few years restoring. The wood work is impressive. Nancy is a nurse at the local hospital. Leroy is a genuine character, replete with 80s glasses, suspenders, a scrawny frame, and colorful language. Nancy, however, is soft spoken and just laughed at him. Both were immensely friendly. They invited me to eat with them. Being a cyclist, I of course accepted even though I had already eaten one dinner.

June 20: Biggsville, IL to La Moille, IL

I grabbed breakfast in Biggsville, where I heard about the region's recent history from a group of farmers. At first they ignored me, but when I pitched in to move the dairy products from the ice chests to the refrigerators whose power had just been restored, I couldn't stop their talking.

Once I had extricated myself from conversation -- I'm happy to listen in the evening, but typically anxious to be rolling when the sun is still low -- I rolled on down 34. What should have been an empty country road, according to the farmers, was that day a circus. By chance, the "More on 34" event took place on June 20 and 21: a hundred mile-long yard sale. I rode 114 miles of intermittent shoulder with my traffic subsystem at maximum alert. In one town, a fellow in a pickup truck suddenly slowed down, shifted off 34 without using a signal, and then called me a dumbass when I passed on his left side. Frankly, I might well have been one for riding on 34 that day, but I wasn't about to camp out an entire weekend, and there were no other routes.

At a Dairy Queen, several families remarked on having seen me many times as they made their way up 34 from one yard sale to the next. They were suitably impressed by my trip and the number of miles I covered each day. I left feeling better about the "dumbass" incident.

With an hour of light remaining, I pulled into La Moille and stopped for a can of Sprite. A woman asked what I was doing. Before I knew what was happening, she had marshaled the forces to find me a place to stay that night, even though I had intended to keep on riding to the next town. By the time everything got sorted out, I was staying somewhere I didn't want to be, though it was of course safe. It was clearly another case of people underestimating my age and thus thinking that they could boss me around. I considered riding away, but it was getting dark by then. I made a minimal camp and set my internal alarm for early.

The day of traffic, being bossed around, and the prospect of more traffic on 34 the next day discouraged me. I told Sarah on the phone that I would probably get a ride from my grandmother and aunt from the western suburbs of Chicago.

June 21: La Moille, IL to Skokie, IL

I woke up at the first hint of light, packed quickly, and was out of La Moille practically before I had arrived. Thus I finished with 34 before the first yard-saler could smell a deal.

With this promising start, I began to consider riding the final thirty miles into Skokie. My traffic subsystem was still fully charged, and I arrived in the western suburbs around 2:00 ready to take on whatever the greater metropolitan Chicago area could throw at me. After some confusion in South Elgin, I reached Golf Road, switched over to Oakton after maybe fifteen miles, and rolled on up to my grandmother's condo just past 5:00. I wouldn't recommend cycling down Golf Road unless you have a good reason, like having cycled 1050 miles to get there.

© 2009, Aaron R. Bradley.