Day Seven: Dallas City to Hannibal, Missouri

We walked back to our tent after listening to the people of Dallas sing karaoke and climbed into the tent as we noticed thunder and lightning in the western sky, across the Mississippi. The trains kept roaring through town, fifty yards from where we were trying to sleep. Lisa worked on her blog post while I fell asleep. A couple of hours later, we realized that a major thunderstorm was approaching and we got out to batten things down, and bring our bags under the vestibule. The wind and rain increased and at about 4:45, we decided to run to the bathrooms and sat in the women’s room for about 45 minutes, then returned to the tent to try to sleep. By the way, everyone says a storm sounds like a freight train, but we had both a storm and real trains all night long. I think we slept a couple hours at the end of the night.

Good news – the Big Agnes tent really kept us and our gear dry. (Thanks, Mary Burke.)

We packed up in the very wet campsite and pulled out of town about 8:30. The course took us up the hill to the high farmland around the town. The riding was great, with little traffic, but a lot of sun and wind. At one point, we encountered a group that was basically doing our trip in reverse – and fully supported, meaning the cyclists ride their lightweight bikes, and carry nothing, and have a couple vans with leaders and mechanics on board. Needless to say, they do not camp. I was envious of their freshness, and good cheer. We were pretty tired and the day was just getting started.

We followed the course, and it was beautiful, as a tour info woman told me in Nauvoo, the most beautiful part of the Mississippi. I was hot and didn’t want to chat, so I did not say “I am from Minnesota and I beg to differ, tourist info lady.” (In fact, it was very beautiful.)

Then we approached the last town before Quincy, Illinois. Hannibal, our goal for the day, is roughly across the river from Quincy, but still a twenty mile ride. I’d calculated that today would be 90 miles, which I thought would be doable, since we had an apartment waiting for us in Hannibal. What I hadn’t known was that the thirty miles before Quincy were completely without services (no towns, stores, gas stations, nothing) or that today would be abnormally warm – the temp was in the mid nineties all day. We loaded up on water before we set out on this crossing (which reminded me of the desert crossing in my favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia) and rolled out onto a thirty mile road, with little traffic, and no shade…a long ribbon of concrete cooking under the southern Illinois sun.

I tried to conserve the water, but you sweat a lot in these conditions. I kept looking back to see where Lisa was and how she was doing, and she kept slowing down. I’d wait for her, but I had a hard time finding a shady place to stop. I stopped once under a huge tree with white blossoms by an abandoned farmhouse and in the quiet, heard a hum, a buzz, and looked up to see thousands of fat bumblebees feasting on the flower’s nectar.

As the miles rolled by, I realized that Lisa was struggling, so I found a place where we could park the bikes and walk down into a shady grove by a little creek. I grabbed these little camp chairs we’ve been carrying and we just sat and drank the (now hot) water, without finishing it, as we weren’t sure how far we had yet to go.

After a fifteen minute break we got back out on the road, still intensely hot, the white concrete radiating the heat back up at us. And then my bike computer started alerting me that there was a severe thunderstorm warning for the vicinity. I thought we were still 7 or 8 miles out of Quincy, and started getting nervous. I actually tried to hitch a ride for us into town…stuck my hitchhiker’s thumb out to an older couple who smiled at me and waved, and gave me a thumb’s up.

I was out of water – after doing long distance running for decades, I knew the feeling of becoming dehydrated and I knew it was bad. We were close to entering Quincy, but were not coming across any sources for cold water, and we were both seriously overheated, but Lisa was in worse shape than me. I just wanted to get her into an air conditioned space.

We finally pulled into Quincy and went to the nearest sports bar. Lisa was in tears.

I’d already decided that we couldn’t consider riding another twenty miles, especially with the sky turning weird colors and rain starting to fall in big drops.

After lots of calls, we found that the local taxi service had a van that they could use to run us to Hannibal, only twenty minutes away.

We went outside (we were both getting chilled, now, in the indoor air) and started to get the bikes and gear ready to get hauled. As we did that, out the door came a guy (Jim) who was a biker and who asked how we were doing. We told him our story and he said that he would take us to Hannibal if the taxi didn’t work out. “That’s what bikers do for each other.” His friends Terry and Holly joined us and we talked biking and touring till the van showed up. We were delighted to meet them, and wished we’d decided to spend the night in Quincy instead of Hannibal.

That is a long story about a day that began and ended with thunderstorms, a day with little or no rest, not much good food and way too little fluids. I’ve always thought the key attribute of an endurance athlete is the ability to not mind discomfort. And I’ve had that quality, but I want to tell you this experience is really different than running a marathon.

We’ve had lots of comments to the effect of “you guys rock” and “you’re amazing” but I want to be really honest…this is so hard and we don’t really feel that way at all. We are both (though we don’t talk about it) wondering if we can do it. That group of riders we saw this morning were cycling on a good meal and fast, unencumbered bikes, with a mechanic along and someone else telling them where they were going to sleep every night. And, good for them, but that’s not what we’re doing. We have to figure out every issue every day. There is very little down time for us.

For me, it isn’t so much a physical challenge, though consecutive 80 mile days are unquestionably hard. It is a spiritual or emotional challenge. I keep asking myself if we can navigate through strange country, find food to eat and safe places to sleep, or if we bit off more than we can chew.

All marathoners ask themselves those questions in the final miles of the race “why did I think this was a good idea?” But the best athletes overcome self doubt and that is my challenge tonight, honestly.

We look forward to a day off tomorrow and Lisa has great plans for touring Mark Twain’s childhood haunts. I just want to sit on the porch.

Day Six: Muscatine, IA to Dallas City, IL

We are in our tent and ready to sleep after a long day (85 miles) of biking through rural Illinois. My hands are starting to regain feeling after gripping handlebars for most of the afternoon’s ride along county highways, with fewer than six inches of shoulder and tons of trucks and vacation bound RVs on the road with us.

There was a time when we were directionally challenged and ended up in line with a bunch of semis at a grain elevator, and a time when we were in the midst of a group of motorcyclists from the Sons of Satan biker gang, and several times when people (men) in trucks (of the jacked up variety) blew dark clouds of exhaust at us after passing us. But we arrived at Dallas City intact and in time to make a donation to the veteran’s memorial to some lovely women from town who stopped traffic at the main intersection and got donations in exchange for poppies, and we set up our tent in our $10 campsite next to the Mississippi river (which comes with the added benefit of trains blasting through every half hour or so), and had dinner at Ike’s down the road, which seemed like the typical small town bar and grill until the jukebox stopped and the karaoke started and it turned out everyone in town was there and queued up to sing their favorite (mostly country) songs. We were particularly pleased by the older couple that sang “I Left Something Turned On At Home” and “Stripes” (which includes the lyrics “I hate stripes, and orange ain’t my color/and if I squeeze the trigger tonight/I’ll be wearing one or the other”) and danced when other people were singing.

Our young waitress had a Bernie Sanders shirt on and when we told her she had left a bunch of things off of our check, she said “there’s too much going on here for me to keep track” and refused to add anything more so we just paid up and gave her a big tip and walked back along the train tracks to our campsite as the sun was setting.

Tomorrow we move on to Hannibal, MO, home of Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens and we get a day off, which will be great incentive to keep me going on these tired legs.