Gravel is the Worst, but…

…it led to an unexpected couple of evenings.

Written on Friday, 7/15/11

On a couch in a library in Gerald, MO.

Traveling through Illinois, I decided to take country roads instead of state/U.S. highways. The going was pretty uneventful, passing rows upon rows of corn and soybeans (Marty from Martinsville said farmers had a saying that if your corn stalks were “knee high by the 4th of July”, you were in good shape. Passing this corn, most likely genetically-modified and sprayed with several different kinds of –cides, I’d say the “knee” should be changed to “head”). Then, without any explanation, the asphalt road turned to gravel. I stopped, looked disdainfully at the loose pebbles, looked back at the five mile stretch I had just ridden, and begrudgingly continued forward. Gravel is the worst because a) it slows your pace to a crawl, b) you know all that rattling can’t be good for the bike, and c) you constantly feel like you’re going to spill since your tires have little traction. After a mile, I came to an intersection, eager to find an alternative, gravel-free route…

You know what’s worse than a gravel road? Two gravel roads. After another bone-rattling mile, I came to a second intersection, thankfully this time with solid ground. I took out my road map, guessed where I was, saw a state road that paralleled my botched country route, and took off. I guess my direction skills are improving because I managed to find the road and returned to a normal speed. By early evening, I had reached Obtuse, IL (insert math joke). Amazingly, this small town had a park whose bathroom had showers! After freshening up, I contemplated camping at the park when I saw the Obtuse United Methodist Church. Remembering the kindness I was shown in Elk Garden, I decided to attend the Sunday evening service (I actually rushed over from the park to make it on time, only to realize I was an hour early…tricky time zones). I definitely stood out among the six or seven people there as a fresh face and youngest by about thirty years. I introduced myself, explained what I was doing (to many “oooh”’s and “aahh”’s and “in this heat?!”), and after the service, a couple offered to put me up for “a night of air-conditioning, if you fancy it.”

Of course I fancied it, and after locking my bike in the church for the night, we drove out to their house. Leland and Sheryl are retired pastors living in Robinson, but still involved in the Oblong church community. After giving me a tour of their home (decorated in jungle theme, with five fountains in their courtyard, stocked with goldfish that can freeze in winter and thaw in spring!), Sheryl began making an enormous pasta dinner while Leland and I watched National Treasure 2 in the basement. A wonderful dinner, an enjoyable movie, a warm bed, and two very gracious hosts make this tall guy on a bike very happy.

……

The next morning, I came upstairs to see Sheryl had made another delicious meal – biscuits and gravy, and oatmeal with bananas, strawberries, and blackberries…I don’t think I’ve had a more hearty and delicious morning on this trip. They drove me back to the church, gave me a bag of almonds to snack on, and wished me well on my journey.

Thank you Leland and Sheryl for the wonderful "dinner and a movie"...and warm bed and hearty breakfast...and the almonds!

My next stop was Vandalia, IL. Pulling up to a grassy area behind a church, I set up camp, took a shower, and began cooking my dinner. Just as I was getting ready to throw the spaghetti in the boiling water, a young man came out from his house next to the church.

“What do ya think you’re doing? Think you can shower naked in someone’s backyard?”

I apologized, not realizing the area was his property (I guess it blends with the church’s), and explained what I was doing, making a point to mention that I was in fact not nude but wearing swimming trunks while I showered. He paused, probably flabbergasted that this scene was occurring in his backyard, then broke out in a smile.

“Oh, sorry ‘bout that. Some neighbors had called saying a naked man was showering in my backyard, and I was thinking, ‘What in the hell? Why my yard?’ A lotta crazies round here, ya know.”

After deeming me not crazy (except for the whole cross-country biking thing), he went inside and came back with a big mug of cold sweet tea and a bag of chips.

“I’m Gage. Come on in after your meal if you wanna get outta this heat for a bit. My girlfriend and I will be watching a movie.”

Note: I’ve never met anyone with that name. I’m not sure how it’s spelled, but it rhymes with ‘sage.’

I did just that, where I received another glass of sweet tea, and the three of us chatted for a while. Gage and his girlfriend had recently moved in together. He was working for a highway construction union, and she was studying art (her paintings of the two of them were hung all over the walls). He said the work was tough, but the pay was good, and it was keeping him out of trouble; he hadn’t graduated high school (recently obtained his GED), had gotten in trouble with the law, and had been homeless a few times. He was glad to be on the straight and narrow, and I was glad for him. When it was about time to head to bed, they offered to pull a mattress in the garage and let me sleep there – “keeps the bugs away, and softer than the ground.” Truer words were never spoken, and I enjoyed the second night in a row sleeping in a “bed.”

So I still despise gravel, but it caused a detour that led me to meeting more generous, eccentric, and all together nice people on this trip.

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