2014 Illinois – Day 4 – Kewanee to Muscatine, IA: Lost in Mercer County

Thursday May 22, 2014, 80 miles (128 km) – Total so far: 274 miles (440 km)

The roads do not do what they are supposed to today. Well, yes, they provide a surface upon which to travel somewhere (when I can find the right ones), but I encounter gravel where there is supposed to be pavement, gravel too big and thick to pedal, and roads that do not match the map. Through all of this, I get totally lost for the first time ever on tour. Consequently, I end up taking a very scenic and prolonged ride through the hollows and backwoods of Mercer County, Illinois.

The day actually starts out fast. The miles fly by as there are few hills and a lot of good pavement. The wind is out of the north today, so my speed is faster since I’m not fighting into it, as I have been the past two days. Traffic is moderate, and most of it disappears after the first major north-south road west of Kewanee. At the highway that leads into Cambridge, I cross over onto a county road that looks like it should be scenic and take the crew and me directly into Andover. The map shows about 1/8 of a mile of gravel….

However, the gravel section has turned into much more. First, we descend down into a large creek valley with thick, fragrant soils freshly tilled and ready for seed. We slowly cycle up a hill on the gravel, hit sections of gravel and pieces of pavement thereafter, and then turn into the main, broad creek valley. Uh-oh. They’ve not bothered to repair the paved sections of road in the river bottom that have been washed away. They’ve dumped in loads of gravel instead, but even this has deep run-off ditches running through parts of it.

We had been speeding along. Now, we are crawling along with great concentration to stay upright in the soft stuff and to steer around the ditches. Then, to add insult to injury (my poor butt doesn’t like this rough surface), I note that our road is leading straight up a steep hill. Crap – we have to go up that?

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The road has deteriorated… and now we have to climb up that hill? Oh yes, we do.

Yes, we do. I have to get off and push for about 75 feet in the steepest section. We climb up the very short, steep hill only to turn right, hit three sharp curves in scenic forest, before we then again fly down a long hill to the main river valley to the north. Following this short, fast respite, we climb again out of the valley through tall forest and small-holdings where residents have planted impressive veggie gardens in small clearings.

Andover is a very neat and tidy little town of 550 people. It feels tremendously cared for, especially compared to Henry. There is a gas station, café, museum, and a city park with clean bathrooms, brand new play equipment, walking paths and several big picnic shelters. The locals are busy unrolling and mounting flags along several hundred feet of walking path for Memorial Day.

I stop to rest, refuel and reapply a potion of creams to my very tender butt. Then, for the first time today, I get lost. Well, I don’t get lost, but I never find the road out of town that I’m looking for. So I hop on the main, shoulderless highway instead (it eventually gains a shoulder). Luckily it is not very busy, and we quickly cruise over I-74.

We make our way to Lynn Center through cropped fields. In the distance, the fields drop off steeply into deep, tree-lined ravines and valleys. This is the last time we know for sure where we are for the next two hours.

The plan is to follow the ‘green’ paved road on the map to a t-junction at Cable, then head north to Sherrard on another paved road. All of the other roads on the map are marked as gravel.

That was the plan anyway. Somewhere along the way, still on pavement, unbeknownst to me, I get off of the Cable Creek Rd and end up a t-junction at the bottom of a steep-sided valley where there is no Cable. In fact, there isn’t much of anything but hills with trees and emerging corn crops squished in the river bottoms wherever it’s flat enough to put a tractor. Crap.

The clouds have come in, and the overcast sky means I can’t even use the sun to determine which direction I’m facing. Maybe Cable isn’t really a locality. Maybe it used to be a locality. That means I should turn right to go north. But that road is not paved. Crap. Where am I?

I don’t panic. At this point, I really do think I’m heading north. It’s just on gravel instead of pavement. Maybe it used to be paved (doesn’t look like it).

And that is when the wandering starts… for the next 1.5 hours or so. Paved and unpaved roads appear where they should. And where they shouldn’t. The biggest problem is that there are no road signs. Except on rare occasion. At one point I see a sign for Meadow Lake Road but no sign for the cross road. Meadow Lake? Oh crap, how did I get down here? North was not north!

I ride on. Dogs chase me. I ride up steep hills and down steep, slippery gravel. I occasionally find some pavement and follow that, only for it to turn to gravel on the next hill. This is one of the few unglaciated parts of Illinois, and the steep hills never covered with glacial till make all these extra miles a bit more taxing. I feel as though I’ve dropped off the edge of the earth into a labyrinth of hollows. I fully expect to hear duelling banjos at any time. Instead, on occasion, I meet farmers passing by in tractors and farmers’ wives in sedans. They all cheerily wave – as if a wandering cycle tourist is just part of the normal fabric of backwoods Mercer County.

I wonder if I can find the creek on my map. Then I’ll know where I am. I find the creek. The bridge has a plaque. It was built in 1980… and then the bridge builders disappeared and no one ever knew what happened to them. Just kidding.

There’s a cluster of houses. This must be Cable. Yippee! How I got there, I do not know, but I know where I am… for about 50 feet until the next road junction. Both roads are paved. One shouldn’t be, according to my map. BUT, there is a road sign! Lying in the grass. Not particularly helpful. I continue on the pavement, which becomes gravel. More hills. More gravel. I admit. I am totally lost. More time wandering.

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We’ve been lost in Mercer County for about an hour. My bike maps haven’t matched what’s on-the-ground for awhile now. The total lack of street signs has not helped. We finally find this one. But it isn’t much help lying in the grass because I don’t know which way is west or north at this point (cloudy so no guidance by the sun either).
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Wandering around in the hollows of Mercer County. It’s one thing to be lost. It’s another thing to be lost in an area with steep hills and a mix of paved and gravel roads. Ugh.

Finally, finally, I get somewhere with a road sign. As I stop to study the map, with the sound of my tires crunching through gravel now silent, I can hear Fed Hwy 67 in the distance. I finally know where I am!! From here I find a gravel road that takes me to the highway. I encounter another dog chase and then see a house for sale. “Reduced, sellers motivated” – yes, because they probably spent more time searching for their house each evening than they spent living in it.

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After an hour of wandering… at the top of this hill I finally find an intact street sign and can hear the federal highway in the distance. We may finally become ‘unlost’ soon!

I get to the highway. F&*#!!! The road is in very poor condition, it’s very busy (it leads to Davenport, IA), and it has no shoulder. Now that I finally know where I am, I don’t want to die. I think something like this: “well, I’m a bit further west and bit further south than I anticipated. We could just do two miles over there on gravel and not have to get on the highway until just south of Preemption. We’ve been doing gravel okay all day”.

WRONG. I get a bit down that road and the gravel is so big and thick, I just sink in like sand. I can’t ride it. I try. Several times. I end up walking most of the two miles.

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We finally know where we are. We need to take a gravel road 2 miles north to get back on track. But the gravel goes from this to so big, thick and deep that we can’t ride it. We push the bike for nearly the whole 2 miles.

I refuel in Preemption with Sociable crackers, the tiny bit of soft drink I have left and some chocolate. The town in its heyday had a stone bank and a row of shops. Today there is a motorcycle shop and a barber – useless services to me at this point. So on we go on a very crappy road surface to Reynolds.

The road gods smile on us. The crappy road curves north at Reynolds into a different county, and the road surface turns good. There are also street signs, not just at corners, but also ones indicating how far it is to the next county road. Fancy that. Buffalo Prairie has a huge Pioneer seed place, a farm equipment dealer and a deli/market, should you ever find yourself in this tiny place and require sustenance.

Then the road curves back south into Mercer County and the road promptly goes to shit. In fact, it becomes loose gravel for a quarter mile, where they just couldn’t be bothered to repair the asphalt, before it goes back to just ‘crappy’ again. I officially nominate Mercer County the most backwards and pavement-poor county in Illinois right then and there.

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It has been a long day without much joy. I wonder if it is worth the detour.

Thankfully, the downhill off the bluffs onto the Mississippi River floodplain is freshly paved and oh, so smooth. That’s because it lies in the other county again. We fly down through the cool, moist forest to County Rd 11 – the river road that follows the edge of the bluff.

The river road is really busy and not very many people are polite in passing. In fact, several people do dangerous things like pass too closely to me but also too closely to the on-coming traffic. Sheesh. I’m pretty over the day at this point, so I call a rest break and pull into a gravel driveway that curves up and away and disappears into the trees.

Of course, of all the places I can pull off, it’s the driveway where a guy on a motorcycle pulls in just after. Sheesh. He’s friendly though. He pulls up his goggles and straightens his long, white and grey beard. He appraises me, the bike and the crew. He approves of Verne. He questions me about my ride and my intentions for Memorial Day weekend. “Stay off the road,” is his advice (and my intention). He then tells me the reason this road is so busy is because it is shift-change at the big factory in Muscatine and everyone is going to work or going home. Ah, that explains a lot.

The road to the bridge over the Mississippi finally gains a shoulder, and up and over we go. Is there anyone who can ride over that river and not be so impressed and slightly overwhelmed by its size and presence? It clobbers me every time.

I scream downhill into downtown Muscatine. It’s been ‘revitalized’ but all I see are bars, pawn shops and scummy people. I eventually find the town hall where there is supposed to be an information center. I need a map of Iowa – I don’t have one. I do have the Iowa bike map pdf on a USB stick, but nothing hard-copy right now. I’m hesitant about leaving the bike outside because of the type of people who are hanging around waiting for a bus. But I run up the steps anyway, question the people at the front counter, whom direct me downstairs. I sprint down there. The door is locked, but I am able to get a map of town. Iowa map – no deal.

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We enter Iowa (our third time to ride across this state) at Muscatine.

Back outside and back onto the somewhat downtrodden streets of Muscatine. This area of town feels like Anderson, only with a few factories left. I’m able to find back streets that parallel a main road to get myself to a motel near a highway interchange.

I’m absolutely beat and so totally over this day. I do not have kind words for Mercer County, Illinois. And my butt does not have kind words for what I put it through today. Part of the three inches of bare skin has formed a bit of a scab, but part of it still has a blister, and part of it has a blister that has torn, lost its old layer of skin and is now seeping pus and blood. Crap. I don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow, but it will not involve putting my ass on a seat. Over and out.

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