After we left RAGBRAI at Muscatine, Iowa, we crossed the river over into Illinois, and turned south on the Great River Road. We only saw the Mississippi once, at New Boston. Mostly we saw broad flood plain fields of corn and beans, more of the same since Nebraska. Traffic was slight and the road isolated. We were alone again.
Just down the road from New Boston, north of Oquawka, an old car passed us slowly and backed into a side road. As we rode by, the young and sickly looking man, flashed a nearly toothless grin, and held his middle finger high with both hands. That was just a little too weird; we decided it was time to turn east.
The roads have no shoulders, but the drivers seem to have been educated on how to treat bicyclists. We stopped at a highway patrol office and picked up a driver’s manual. The wording on the subject is specific and explains why bicyclists can’t always ride at the extreme right edge of the road, why motorists must be considerate. This is the best manual we’ve seen and could explain the drivers courtesy.
At a town park in Havana, on the Illinois river, we watched two tugs push a string of barges around the bend and past us in the damp air. The river is narrow and the barges coarse near, yet when they pass, there is but a whisper of water; their silence underscored by the low diesel throb of the tugs.
Later, the sun lowering and haze darkening, Claire discovered she’d lost an earring that her mother had given her. We went through our panniers, the tent and all our clothes to no avail. She headed off to the toilets, where we took bird-baths earlier, and where she hoped she might find it.
I watched her walk past the boat ramp where a fisherman unloaded a string of catfish and a good-sized snapping turtle. My Daddy told me all about snapping turtles one day when we were running grandpa’s trot-line in the Coal river, West Virginia, “You get bit by a snapping turtle, he’ll hold on until it thunders.”
She’s really hurting about loosing the earring, a simple silver hoop of no great monetary value, but great emotional value, afraid it’s gone forever, like her mother. I hurt when she hurts and there’s nothing I can do.
The still river, heavy air and a chalk-sun falling through a slate colored haze, gave a strange quality to the place.
“River town river town,” the jar flies repeated from the overhanging trees, “River town river town,” and a soft rain began to fall.
It didn’t fall from the sky, but seemed to coalesce from the humidity blanketing the river and the fields beyond. There is no sky here; river and far-bank-trees fade into the colorless haze, and the world ends there.
Claire has been gone for what seems a long time. I seldom worry about her, when, briefly, we are apart on this trip, trusting her judgment and ingenuity, but the strangeness of this place…
Our anniversary is in a few days. I am reminded of another sunset, our wedding eve, on other waters, a beach on Puget Sound near Port Townsend, Washington; a rose to blue/black north sky, peach alpenglow on the snowfields of Mount Baker, the sweep of the lighthouse just down the beach, kayaks offshore.
I was grilling a half-dozen fresh silver salmon, Claire was setting up salads and talking with friends who were drinking wine, enjoying conversation, the colors on the water, and the blending scents of garlic, tarragon, salmon and the sea.
The next day they would join us at Fort Warden chapel for our vows, just up the hill and across the parade grounds seen in the movie, An Officer And A Gentleman.
That August day was perfect, blue sky and warm for the Northwest. Men’s jackets came off just after the ceremony and we ate carrot cake and sesame seed cake in sunshine between towering firs and the sea, drank champagne, laughed and talked ourselves hoarse.
We had only one disappointment that wedding day, that Claire’s mother would not be there. She died in our home two months before. Her illness bonded us in a manner not possible any other way. And, it planted the seeds of our desire to live life fully together, and in the present. DeLee’s death taught us that there are no guarantees. Tomorrow may not be an option. That realization is one of the reasons we are here now, vagabonds in love with each other and life.
It’s dark now, and though still warm, the humidity seems to fog my skin and bring a strange chill. I look in the direction Claire went and see her coming, head down, across the lawn. All I can do is hold her.
We woke to a hard steady rain the next morning and took our time packing under a picnic shelter. A city park employee came by to talk as we packed. He made a point of telling us that the reason he moved to this part of Illinois was to get as far away from black people as he could. It is amazing how quickly our interest in talking to a person can fade.
It was 11 am by the time we left town and the rain had not eased. The water stood deep on Route 138. Waves of it swept over us when vehicles passed. Claire swears one wave went over both our heads; I just remember the ones that slapped me in the face on the way to her.
At times I felt like I could drown, water in my eyes and up my nose, and all of it full of a black grit that sticks. At one point we stopped so I could flush the grit from my ears with squirts from my water bottle.
This midwestern rain is serious stuff. At least it’s not cold. It let up in the afternoon and the wind from our speed dried us.
We stopped in a small store in San Jose and some kids asked us for our autographs. We thought that was pretty funny, but did it. Claire got an address for Raymond Satchfield, and promised to send a card at Christmas when we’d be back west at least as far as El Paso. Should have seen their eyes. Texas! Horizons were being broadened. They’ll never look at a bicycle the same again.
Just west of Hayworth was a small town park which looked good to us for camping. The town hall was closed, so we couldn’t ask for permission to camp. We left word at a quick mart where the sheriff’s deputy hangs out.
We lay everything we own out to dry on about a dozen tables under a large picnic shelter in the park.
When the deputy arrived, to make sure we weren’t undesirables no doubt, he had the mayor with him. Claire charmed them both, as she does so often. The mayor, who was quite elderly, couldn’t get over the fact that we managed to get all that stuff on one bicycle.
Thunderstorms blew rain under our picnic shelter during the night, and got some of our stuff wet. At least cool humidity is easier to sleep in than hot humidity. We slept late.
Dodged thunder storms all day, and late in the afternoon, we were driven into a crossroads bar by lightning. The bar was named the Oasis. We had a burger and talked to a Don and Krista Morgan who were having a beer together after work.
They offered us a place to stay for the night. We declined for the moment, wanting to get beyond the rain if possible, but did get directions to their house which was on our way, about ten miles down the road in Potomac. After another ten miles of rain, we were ready to cut our day short at 60 miles.
Don and Krista not only gave us a bed for the night, they let us wash clothes and bathe and fed us a wonderful home cooked dinner from their garden, (yellow tomato, green beans, new potatoes and meatloaf). They have a total of seven children from previous marriages, but they were absent, being with the other parents for the week.
Don does lawn work and Krista is about to go back to work in a warehouse where she got a back injury last year. Don also is head of the local volunteer fire department. What fine people. They have a good life and we were blessed that they shared it with us.
We invited them to visit us sometime, but they don’t travel; probably equal parts financial and logistics, with the seven children. But who knows, after they’ve all grown up…