Kentucky/Illinois

You couldn’t have fit a ruler in the space between Grant and the 18-wheeler that blew past us in Eastern Kentucky. I’m sure I was equally close, we were on a frighteningly narrow bridge, and with heavy opposite traffic we were blasted up against the rail. We both managed to stay on our bikes though, so I suppose that story is not as harrowing as I’d like to remember it being, but I’ll tell you, Appalachian cycling is some scary stuff.

—We’d been riding at a furious pace and time hasn’t been kind to keeping daily logs of our progress. That’s the thing though, it seems like those heavy ideas that time is false and man-made and whatnot that certain theologians push around is beginning to seem kind of true. I can’t decide, months removed from our ride, if moments in Virginia and Kentucky seem like they were yesterday or a month ago. And here’s the other thing. We were climbing this very, very tall mountain in eastern Kentucky and it occurred to me, just then, that I might have prematurely run out of superlatives to describe these massive mountains. I thought, well, crap, I certainly built up the Virginia Appalachians well enough, no one’s going to believe the enormity of height Kentucky’s Appalachians brought on us. So I figured I would wait a bit to see other parts of the trail to gain some reference so I can appropriate adjectives correctly. But that’s what I think about on these rides.—

Anyway, I kind of alluded to a distaste brooding in our heads for eastern Kentucky in the last update. Time to reflect has not changed our collective dislike of that region of the country. I’m sure there are really fine people in all other parts of Kentucky and even eastern Kentucky—we met some of them. But if you aren’t offended by the dangerous driving, rude attitude, calls from the truck as they speed by you and the copious, disgusting, unbelievable amount of trash scattered in the gullies and hills alongside the road, then you may not have been in the same part of eastern Kentucky we rode through. Or you may be from eastern Kentucky… Anyway, the mountains truly were astounding. Riding up them was every bit as hard as our Virginia rides, but I think Kentucky has taller mountains. *** We didn’t leave the “mountains” until central Kentucky, around Hazard, but then they just kind of died into long stretches of hills, often steep and, unfortunately, perpetual through the state.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to ride a bike up a mountain. It really gets to a point where you are sure your muscles are going to fail any second, but they never do. The humidity is very reminiscent of a jungle, aided by the wealth of trees surrounding the road. And finally, after a very long, agonizing, enduring ride up the mountain, there’s usually a county line or a sign with a truck propelling wildly out of control downhill that means you made it to the top. It’s satisfaction and relief, but deep down you’re thinking, as you enjoy that long downhill “I’m just going to have to go up this again in literally 2 miles.” Retrospectively though, it’s an awesome feeling, it really is.

Central Kentucky was a different story altogether. We were in Hazard, which I will declare as the end of Appalachia, although if you went to visit, you’d be reminded of my previous negative sentiments as soon as you visit the town Wal-Mart, aka the “hang-out”. But after we left an over-priced bed and breakfast*** (which literally offered neither bed nor breakfast, but did include a shower of water embedded with sulphur, no thanks), we entered Buckhorn and my dad came down and caught up with us. We all stayed in a hotel there, and after a night of Phase 10 (see Virginia update), we set off to Berea in the morning. This was important because my dad was able to see how ridiculous the mountains we climbed truly were, so when I get back and tell my family about how the Appalachians are the toughest part of the trip, I’ll have an eyewitness account ready to back up my words, which will ineffably fall short of accurate description. We took a day off in Berea, though, and we drove up to Lexington to see the town, the university, and get some errands done. It’s an okay city, it’s kind of like a lot of the other southern cities I’ve visited… I wouldn’t mind going back is all.

So after my dad left and we left Berea, our coziness hangover was shattered with the passing of a tremendous, terrifying storm that rolled through town as we raced to get our camping equipment under a pavilion in the city park at which we had planned to stay. The lightning was just ferocious. The wind was even worse and the rain blanketed the sky and reduced visibility to, seriously, three feet. So we were obviously terrified we’d entered tornado country unprepared and after the storm left, in about 5 minutes, we all had a hearty laugh at the absurd might of that storm. Earlier that night, Lauren and I gave into suspicion and tried the regionally-touted frog legs. I would tell you what they taste like, but then Grant, who refused adamantly to try them, would know what they taste like and then it’d be just like he had the satisfaction of trying them. That Grant– we make fun of him enough because he only eats grilled chicken, vanilla ice cream and biscuits, he doesn’t deserve this added pecking, but come one, Kentucky frog legs, let’s go.

And so after a ride or two we came across the roaring town of Sebree (pop. 800) and stayed at a church hostel with legitimately the nicest people I’ve ever met, Bob and Violet. They let us sleep in the rec room of the church, which included a shower, bathroom, our own room, ping pong and unlimited chocolate milk and insisted we ate dinner with them. AND, Violet whipped Grant and I up some milkshakes and I’m going to combine the delight on his face and my personal experience with my milkshake and say they were probably the best milkshakes ever consumed by either of us. We planned to leave the next day, but an ominous sky, morning downpour and tornado warnings kept us in the church, which clearly wasn’t any penalty. Bob and Violet gave us some lunch, and I should mention, some delightful and entertaining conversation, and let us use their laundry machine. I can’t tell you how genuinely nice these people are, you don’t really meet people like that usually, or at least you don’t get to spend enough time with them to appreciate their kindness.

But we left Sebree and headed through the time zone and towards Illinois. We were kind of expecting a bland ride, to tell you the truth, until the Mississippi River but we came across a town called Falls of Rough, which turned out to be a great afternoon on the beach. We loved the idea of being on a beach in western Kentucky; it just seems like a ridiculous location to enjoy that activity. Anyway, we left the lake in the morning and we were right on the verge of getting into Illinois until we got to the Ohio River, which separates the two states, and had to wait for an unbelievably inefficient ferry to come back from the Illinois side, load up and bring us across. It really was inefficient, but apparently the guy who operates it makes a fortune from the state. In the morning, we saw a line on the Illinois side that must have taken 2 hours if you were in the back. You wouldn’t think you’d have to say it, but sometimes people just need to get rid of a ferry and build a bridge already.

Kentucky felt like it took a while to get out of; it was very long and there were a combined 2 miles of truly flat road, so you can easily diagnose the cause of our slow travels. Appalachia, with the exception of the trash, was a beautiful place but Grant and I were disappointed that after every climb there was no sight to see like there was in Virginia, it was just more trees. On the downhills, we got to peek through the trees and see the valley and the range and the river, but we were going nearly 40 miles an hour, and that’s a ridiculous speed for sight-seeing. The rest of Kentucky was maybe how you’d imagine it: rolling hills and farmland. Lots of hay bales. I made the comment one day that they looked very creepy in the context of a quiet, vacant, breezy farm landscape but Grant didn’t think so. This is what we talked about on such early rides.

And then Illinois showed up.

The story of Illinois really begins at the end. We were only in the state for three days, but the notable and memorable came on the last morning we rode. After crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky, Illinois was loaded with hills and broken roads which made for unpleasant riding, to be honest. But that last morning, and I think we weren’t expecting it, we biked up through the Mississippi River levee area, forgetting about the recent flooding only miles north of our crossing point.

 

There were telephone poles, trees and mailboxes sticking out of lakes in front of people’s houses. The area was not very populated, though, and the few houses and farms we saw looked like the lakes of river overflow occurred naturally. So Grant and I rode for miles, getting closer to the river and seeing more and more flooding until we turned a corner and without discussion, both decided to get off our bikes.

 

It was silence. And there was the occasional faint whisper of wind which somehow made it seem more silent and secluded than before. As we ride, the wind blows past our ears and makes an unceasing rush of sound, but the moment we stopped and listened, we heard nothing for the first time the whole trip and it really hit, at that moment, that we were farther away than we’d been lulled into thinking during the overly routine rides to date.

 

The soil was cracked like a desert and there were trees in the distance, but it looked like a fertile land lost. The crunch of our footsteps echoed throughout the valley, not even interrupted by wildlife, the sounds of which were strangely absent. But the stop and smell the roses sentiment never sounded more important in my head than when it was aided by that abundant silence.

 

Illinois, like I mentioned, was not as bad as the Appalachians to ride through but there were plenty of cracked and potholed roads I’d rather we hadn’t had to ride. What saved Illinois for us were the state parks at which we stayed. In the two towns we slept, we had a comfortable state park with clean, working bathrooms and showers and a safe place to set up our tent. Our first stop was Elizabethtown, which is right across the Ohio River from Kentucky; one awfully inefficient ferry ride away. People were lined up for a mile waiting to get on the ferry that held only about 15 cars at a time and took about 30 minutes to cross the river, re-load and come back. Unfortunately for some, there was a motorcycle rally in Elizabethtown that weekend, so while our bikes were small enough to skip right to the front of the line and hide in the corner, thousands and thousands of motorcyclists were stuck waiting for that ferry to take them across. Nice folks, though.

 

We took a long ride to Carbondale the next day, which happened to be a pretty big town so we decided to spend the night and a day off there. We had a fantastic morning, spending some time at Panera doing some updates, loading pictures, miscellanea, what have you. And in a telling foreshadow of the following day’s feeling of blissful abandonment, the entire city of Carbondale lost power. All the restaurants, stores, malls, traffic lights, everything shut down. So on our one day off, we had no options for aberrational entertainment, but we were well equipped and trained to deal without the luxuries of electricity. It was, however, fascinating to see how everyone in the town governed their own traffic without the lights. I’d often wondered what would happen if people were left to their own judgment in a car, if it would be more efficient, so here was a perfect demonstration. One line of cars would go from opposing sides and then the parallel traffic would let a line go and so on and forth. Then the cops showed up and restored “order” but I’ll tell you, I think the people had it right.

 

On the last day, we woke up excited about seeing and crossing the Mississippi. We headed through that valley I was talking about before and hit the border town of Chester. This is the home of Popeye. I am pretty sure the creator was from Chester, not Popeye the character, but I really couldn’t tell you. The town is obsessed with the cartoon though: monuments, murals, restaurants, everything. I was okay with the level of Popeye I was previously encountering in my life until Chester, IL, so I thought it was a bit overdone. It was a cartoon and quite frankly an unentertaining one, but it’s not my town or anything.

 

And then we crossed the bridge over the Mississippi and entered Missouri. It was a short stay in the well-advertised “land of Lincoln” but a good one, I think.

 

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