Tuesday May 20, 2014, 52 miles (84 km) – Total so far: 154 miles (247 km)
Today is the day I tear up my ass. The rip in my seat covering is now so huge there is a large ridge between the edge of the seat covering and the foam underneath. The long lump lines up perfectly with the padding edge on my bike shorts. Eventually, this creates a 3-inch long blister where my leg meets my butt. Of course, the blister tears and my butt/leg skin is a raw mess when I finally get around to looking at it at day’s end.
The day starts, however, with a pretty tough push into the wind on 1800N, a mile north of State Hwy 116. Again we climb into wind farms – though the turbines are all facing away today. The huge blades carve their long arcs in the sky, the noise when you ride by underneath not unlike that of a jet plane getting ready to take off.
I get off the road a few times for monstrous pieces of farm equipment. 80 percent of the corn crop is in. 66 percent has emerged. Last year at this time, only 60 percent of the crop was planted. I’m glad to ride this landscape at this time of year when there are no crops to obstruct your vision. Being able to see long distances gives you a much better feel for the undulations and general lay of the land. It overwhelms you with the immensity of glaciation and good soils. Riding this later in the year, when the corn is so tall that it is all you can see, would be considerably claustrophobic compared to the miles and miles of sky and soil and ribbons of road that are in view now.
In our efforts to find county roads that connect over/under the interstate, the crew and I end up in Minonk for morning tea. The sleepy, one-street town is all abuzz. There is a fire at the factory south of town. Four bright red, polished trucks full of middle-aged men go by with sirens blaring.
After food and drinks, we head north and west out of town. Just after crossing I-39, I see the ruins of a house surrounded by yellow tape. Only the foundation and piles of debris remain. The trees nearby are all stripped of their branches and fuzzy with regrowth. Surely, it’s the work of a tornado. (Yes, when I look it up online later, it was a 46-mile-long tornado that was an EF-3 when it hit here but had been an EF-4 earlier in its path. It was one of several to strike in an outbreak last November).
I’m not impressed with Henry. It doesn’t feel ‘cared for’. It’s a river town with several blocks of old, quarried buildings downtown, but most are in disrepair. There seems to be no great efforts at revitalization. There are many graceful old homes with large lawns edged in black wrought-iron fencing, but the place just feels ‘has been’ instead of ‘hoping to be’. Even the library is underwhelming: it’s tiny; there’s no wifi; and, all of the computers are slow and ancient.
Late in the afternoon, I head down to the park on the Illinois River. From 4-10 pm, there is nearly a constant stream of traffic driving through the park. The traffic represents all strata of socio-economic life: nearly new SUVs with men in casual business attire; redneck men in cut-off tshirts in noisy, old pick-up trucks; moms with kids in old or new sedans. It’s as if the whole town has to come down at some point each day to reassure themselves that the river is still there in these uncertain times.
No one comes over to talk to me. It’s as if I don’t exist. Which is fine but slightly odd since a normal day sees at least six or so conversations with strangers. Eventually, I set up my tent under the picnic shelter, since there is a chance of strong winds and hail tonight. I’m never all that comfortable camping in city parks, but this town is on the Northern Tier, so I tell myself a whole bunch of touring cyclists have probably camped here over the years.
It’s a hot night and I lie on top of the sleeping bag, trying to keep my weeping ass from sticking to the skin of my leg. Upon inspection this evening, my butt is in some serious need of antibiotic cream and a layer of new skin. It is a concern, but not enough of one at this point to keep me awake.
The storms never materialize – there are just some rumbles of thunder off to the northeast about 4 am. Nobody bothers me either. What does wake me through the night, however, is the heavy barge traffic. There have been three or four barges passing by each hour since I arrived. The traffic continues through the night. The hi-beam lights on the barges sweep back and forth from riverbank to riverbank, flashing through the tent like lightning, as the barges slowly churn their way through the deep, dark currents. The low chugging of the engines beats against my chest when the barges pass by not far below. In an age of instant email and overnight Amazon deliveries, these long, flat boats full of grain or piled high with containers seem like a retro throwback to days gone by. And so it is that all night I feel a bit like Huck Finn camped on a riverbank on some grand adventure.