2014 Illinois – Day 3 – Henry to Kewanee: Like a salmon swimming home

Wednesday May 21, 2014, 40 miles (65 km) – Total so far: 194 miles (312 km)

The morning air is thick with humidity. The fuzzy haze filters the sunlight as I pack up my gear. Thicker grey stratus clouds frame the western horizon. You can see the air this morning – the sunlight reflects off droplets of vapor floating in the sky. The moisture is everywhere, in the sky and the soil, in the wide, full-banked rivers and the lush green tree leaves. It is almost extravagant. It’s as if nature is showing off just what it can do with adequate rainfall and transpiration that doesn’t immediately evaporate. Where I live, the only time you can see the air is when there is a wildfire, and the sky hangs about in wisps, curls and choking layers of particulate pollution.

To start the day, we ride across the wide, western floodplain of the Illinois River. I try to imagine this wide channel 10,000 years ago as it carried water off the melting glaciers. Soon enough, we enter second-growth forest as we follow a winding road up a rushing creek to the river bluff. We ride onto the plains above through fields of sprouting corn and soybeans. Again today, the high points of the landscape sprout wind farms, too.

The road out of the floodplain curves up through scenic forest for a few miles.
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The clouds don’t look all that promising this morning. But we never get rained on, and the day ends up sunny, hot and humid.

The crew and I ride County Highway 6/2 all the way to the road to Castleton. We find ourselves again in hilly terrain, ascending and descending creek and river drainages. Cattle and tall, bright green pasture replace corn and soy on steeper slopes and poorer soils. Eventually we descend into Modena, a collection of homes and farms lying along a small river bottom, before climbing back into ever more fields of young corn. We are riding into the wind, and my wounded butt requires a constant shifting on the seat to remain somewhat comfortable, but it is a fantastic day to be alive and riding a bike.

Familiarity pulls me backward as I ride forward. It is a distant and primal feeling. The deep green trees, the long green grasses and weeds, the creeks full of brown water and slippery flat rock bottoms, and the angle of the sun shining across the freshly sprouting short-stalked corn call to me. They say, “Home. Home. This is home”. It is not. It has not been for 20 years. But childhood memories rise up from within my brain and hang about as I cross this landscape. Is this how a salmon feels when they cross vast distances to return ‘home’ to spawn? It’s as if my brain holds these memories in a special place and then hurls them outward whenever I visit the Midwest. The familiarity feels far away with time but fresh in memory. I was imprinted as a child, and no matter how far I roam or where I call home, there will always be a recognition in my head that I once knew a place like this in a way only curious, sponge-like young brains can absorb.

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 Eventually, we have to get on busy Hwy 91 for a few miles to the top of a hill. Here we leave all the traffic behind as it goes left on Hwy 93 and we head straight to the next road junction. Then we head left on a ¼ mile of gravel which turns to pavement at the county line. After a freewheeling descent, the road follows a creek on a mid-level bench. Down below, the creek meanders through thick grass and stunted riparian trees. Deer hunting blinds are scattered along the banks on the eastern side. The head of the creek branches into shallow indentations in the surrounding hills like a spider’s web, and we are left to climb back up into the rolling fields. We roll up and down the wave-like plains and find our way into the southeast edge of Kewanee.
Based on the logic of this sign, I am definitely adding some minutes to my life this summer.

I purchase food, drinks and a tube of antibiotic cream and then find a well-kept park on the west side of town. We relax on the lush green grass under the deep, full shade of a maple tree. The 90 degree heat and high humidity envelope us with that thick, nearly visible air, and we spend the afternoon staying off my angry, raw ass. Another great day done.

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