Range Roaming – Illinois 2013 – Day 5

My hardest day on the road EVER: Havana to Macomb

Friday April 19, 2013, 26 miles (41 km) – Total so far: 200 miles (322 km)

So the title for today could have been: “When the drainage ditches have whitecaps” OR “Do you prefer ice pellets to thunderstorms?”.

This will be the hardest day for me on the road ever.

The wind whistles under the motel room door. That is not a good sign. When I step outside, the cold air makes me involuntarily contract all the muscles in my torso. Not a good sign. But we push off anyway at 7am. The air temperature is 35F as we leave. The wind chill is 22F. The west wind is steadily blowing at 25-30 mph. Both the weather radio and the Weather Channel on TV confirm it’s going to be a tough day.

As we pedal the first few blocks, I resolve to myself that we will just keep pedaling today, no matter how slow. We will get there. Just don’t try to be speedy and get discouraged. But wow, that wind is frigid, and my arthritic fingers don’t want to shift or brake or do anything much.

In our first couple miles today we have to cross the scariest bridge we encountered on the whole 2010 tour. It is still as scary as the last time, but luckily the wind is in my face. A crosswind would be terrifying. The bridge is a very high and arched one. There is no sidewalk or much of a shoulder. You must strike a happy middle ground between the white edge line and the tire-swallowing drainage grates that are open to the river below. What is really scary, though, is that the height of the railing is only about thigh-high on the bike. It feels as if you were forced to the edge that the bike might be caught, but you would keep going. Oh, I do not like this bridge.

On the bridge, two semis pass each other and me at the same time. Well, now I know that is possible. I live. I’m concentrating so much on the traffic and my road position that I’m not really able to look over and see how extensive the flooding is here. In places it is supposed to be 20 feet above flood stage. It is too scary to look down or over anyway!

Once across the bridge, I settle into a 6 mph slog into the wind. There is water all over the fields on either side of the raised road. The climb up through the river bluffs is okay, the wind not so bad as it’s deflected by topography. Up on top, it’s a tough slog, though.

Waves of ice pellets sting my face, hurting and blinding me if they hit my eye. So I just keep my head down as they ping my helmet and rain jacket. It is so, so cold. Maybe not bitter – but definitely bracing.

Interestingly, when they repaved Hwy 24/136, they didn’t add a shoulder. 136 has a good shoulder, most of the time, all the way to Table Grove. But where the two federal highways join for a few miles, there is no shoulder at all. I also have the 25mph wind as crosswind here, so it is a tense few miles with the traffic.

I climb slowly up the hill out of the Spoon River drainage. The flooding is impressive. The river is out of its banks as far as I can see, the water looking frigid and deadly as it spills over the landscape. The colours before me today are all dull browns and greys with tinges of green on the edges of fields. The cows look at me in misery, their hot breath forming puffs of condensation in the cold. As I shiver and look northeast, I wonder if spring will ever arrive this year.

There is record flooding on the Illinois River which I cross this morning. The county roads, the back way to Macomb, are closed due to flooding. This is the Spoon River. There is water everywhere and I am wondering if Spring will ever arrive.

The wind is awful, and I slog forward, trying not to get blown around too much. It is hard, hard work. I pedal along at 4 mph. Anytime the road curves and there’s a bit of crosswind, instead of just direct headwind, the wind just sends me everywhere. I weave around in the shoulder and get blown off the road a couple times.

I stop every couple miles to rest. Each time I stop at a road intersection, I can hear the wind banging the road signs back and forth in a rhythmic clatter.

Eventually, I make it to Table Grove. I go into the convenience store to warm up and figure out what to do. From here on, I can’t use 136 because there is no shoulder and the wind will be a crosswind. I was having trouble staying on the road when there was a shoulder. I’ve got no chance of staying on the road and out of the way of the truck traffic up ahead. In 2010, I just used county roads from here to Macomb. But that is not possible today because of road closures due to flooding. So I’m done here, regardless. The woman running the convenience store tells me where the park is and says she doesn’t think anyone would mind if stayed there. She also warns me, however, that it will be cold because there is no protection from the wind out there.

I go eat my snacks and get up the courage to ask the farmers sitting at the next table if I can get a lift the last 13 miles into Macomb from one of them. No deal- they all have excuses and the old guys seem skeptical. I think I actually would have had a better chance if I’d been a guy. That’s not usually the case, but I think the poor old fellows seem to feel a bit awkward because of my gender. As I’m leaving, the store owner says she just talked to the mayor when he came in and he said it’d be fine for me to stay at the park (so that was the guy scoping me out when he walked by – makes sense now).

So I head down to the park and start setting up the tent – not the easiest task in a park set on the edge of a barren field in a 30 mph wind. It is so squishy and muddy that I quickly have mud on just about everything. It is so cold I put my winter hat on.

Just after I get the tent set up, the one young farmer at the gas station arrives in a pick-up and says he can take me to Macomb if I want. He wasn’t able to do so back at the store because he was in a semi, but he went and dropped that off and picked up his truck.

I graciously accept. His name is Garrett. He’s lived here his whole life and works on farms driving trucks and doing general farm work. He’d seen me on the road today when he was doing several trips to the grain handling depot and thought “wow, that girl is dedicated to be riding today”. He has a wife, a 4-year-old and a baby on the way. He’s the fire chief of the local volunteer department. Super nice guy who won’t let me give him any money for gas when he drops me off in town. Once again, the universe provides just when you need it the most.

So all of the motels are booked out. Many people have been displaced by flooding and are staying in the motels. So I end up getting one of the last rooms in town. It is incredibly expensive ($126 after tax) and I have to leave my bike in a store room, but after the hardest day on the road ever, it is worth every penny. I’m getting lots of not-so-approving stares from the clientele of the Hampton Inn. But I don’t care. I grab four of the water bottles at the front desk (boil water notice in effect because the treatment plant in town is flooded, so no drinking the tap water), head up to the room, turn the heater on high… and collapse. 5 hours of hard pedaling to go 26 miles. Ice pellets. Heavy wind. What a long and exhausting day!

The bike outside the Hampton Inn the following morning. Enforced luxury (the only place we could find a vacancy in town) – had to get a photo of the bike in the driveway of the nicest hotel we stay in on the whole trip.

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