Rules of the Road.
1. Shade will always be on the opposite side of the road to you.
2. If you don’t see cars for miles, when you’re about to reach the crest of a steep hill, there will be a sudden rush-hour from all directions.
3. If an insect wants to bite you, it will do so at the worst possible time. Like when you’re sweating up a hill and can’t take your hands off the bars to swat it away. And then it will deliver a stinging pain to you as though injected on a hot, poisoned, acupuncture needle.
I am parched. Completely parched. The water from my bottles is so hot it runs down my throat and simply makes it dry. For the last two miles, I have been riding waves of hills and thinking about one thing: the next rest stop. Shade is hard to find, though I find myself continually scanning the road ahead for it.
Eyes squinting into the distance. That 1.000 yard stare to nowhere cool.
Sometimes I’m tricked. I see it at the top of a climb near some trees. But then I get closer and the image will collapse like poorly folded origami and reveal itself to just be a mirage of heat and gas and gotchasucker attitude.
My start had been late. Intentionally. I figured it wasn’t going to be a long day and John had mentioned perhaps swapping some advice on the road ahead, since he was going where I had been and I… well, I was just going.
We roll through the streets of Sebree around 9 looking for somewhere to eat and arrive at a place with the word Kangaroo in the name. Standing in front of the hot glass of the food dispenser, I eye the tightly wrapped biscuits with edges of slick bacon poking out. They glisten under the golden bulb.
John looks similarly struck mute by their appearance.
“You know, we passed a dairy bar and they had a sign out for breakfast,” he says.
“You wanna go there?”
“Well, I don’t really min…”
“Let’s go there.”
Our exit is quick and we ride a block or two back in the direction we came.
At the counter, I order a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich. Inquire about orange juice.
“We only have soda,” says the server.
I have only recently started to consume soda on a regular basis. A coke. Usually if it’s exceedingly hot and about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I’ve ridden a long way. I slam it down and wait for the eye watering moment where the fizz hits and love every minute of it.
But I’m not ready yet to have it for breakfast. Water. Water will have to do.
As John examines the elevation chart on my map for his day’s ride (he has an older version of with no chart), my sandwich arrives and I take a distracted bite.
And then I pay attention. The bread is thick and made crunchy by the butter slathered on the outside of its freshly toasted glory. It hits my lips and my tongue and my eye twitches a little with the joy of it. The bacon is salty, the egg not too oily. But it’s the butter that has my devotion. The tips of my fingers are slick with it and I lick it off digit by digit.
“This is actually not bad,” I say between mouthfuls.
That breakfast seems so long ago now. I gradually make my way through this hazy landscape. It’s getting hot very quickly and I pull over to take a photo of a collection of eagles circling above me. I think they’re eagles. Perhaps buzzards? Perhaps they know something I don’t know?
Further on, I see two rise from a corpse in the road and screw up my nose as I ride past its entrails and lifeblood on the sizzling hotplate of a road.
Hotter still. A few climbs in full sun. It’s the full sun that gets me. That drains and sucks the life from me. But on I go. On. I am in a section where there are no service stops for 22 miles and although I have plenty of water, I know that it will boil and bubble and be very uninviting for my throat by the end of that.
Turning onto a wide baking road I spy a giant sign indicating “Flagman ahead”. The asphalt is new and smooth here, and I wonder if I’m to endure another spell of that ‘Fresh Oil’ smell and blackened tires.
Straight I go. Forward. The compacted dirt by this new road is broken by cracks where water has run, probably in a recent storm. I go up a small incline then breach the surface of the day. Ahead I see the ripple of movement in the distance. Of gravel trucks and a flagman walking towards me, pulling something.
Although it seems close to the eye, the distance is deceiving and it takes me a while to get up to the yellow-coated stop/slow sign holder. It is a woman, heavily tanned and squinting into the sun. She is pulling a small piece of luggage on wheels. I’m not sure what’s in it, but as I pull to stop by her, she points and Zimmerman and says:
“I need one of those. Stop me dragging this thing around.”
“You don’t want one of these,” I say. She really doesn’t.
She says something into her walkie-talkie, then tells me that it shouldn’t be long, but that I should try keep as far right as possible as there are a lot of gravel trucks going in and out.
As she flips her sign around to SLOW, I say “that’s the only speed I do,” and we both laugh as I pull away.
I creak and groan along. Even though it’s flat it’s very black and very hot and very roadworky. I pass a line of gravel trucks waiting their turn to dump their loads, then I’m waving to the workman as they spread and cajole the tar into submission. Once past them, more trucks, a roller, and eventually the flagman for the other side.
We nod at each other, but I’m still not done. I wind up an incline, snuggle up to the very edge of the new tar to let empty trucks go by, and on for more miles.
Eventually it ends, but my torture has barely began. I head deeper and deeper into the cauldron. The long straights roll out before me, rippled slightly like a picnic blanket being flapped free of crumbs.
For agonizing miles there is absolutely no shade whatsoever. Not even a hint. Trees are shy participants in this scene, choosing to be far away from this black line across the landscape. I continue to stop and drink every so often, knowing that the water is too hot, the quench will not come, but I must be very close to Marion now and then I shall have some relief. Then I shall go into a building, any building, and I will be shaded by its love and quenched by any liquid I can get my hands on.
But for now. Now I cook.
Roadworks again, but this is different. This is sticky. So sticky and new that at one point, I run a bit close to the edge and the road slips away and crumbles off like cookie dough. I notice as a car passes that it’s leaving a trail on the surface and now that I think about it, my tires feel like they have more resistance than normal. Like I’m riding in treacle. Like the road is unwilling for me to leave. It likes my company.
I crest a hill and see a nice downhill stretch out in front of me, with the end of the new tar near the bottom. As I fly my sticky way down, I notice the unevenness of the ending, the gravel and messiness that splutters out in a stretch of about 40ft.
Forty sticky, gooey feet. Tiny bits of gravel click against my fenders and are flying skyward in my wake. The sound is suction, and even once I’ve passed this section it continues.
Something is wrong. I ride further and think this. Have I got a puncture? Why is the bike so sluggish? What’s going on?
Pulling over onto the grassy edge of the road I see the problem. My tires now have a new coating of tar on them. Gravel appears in it like nuts on an ice-cream cone. I attempt to scrape it off, but it’s thick and wet and won’t budge, even when I take a stick to it. Rather than waste time, I determine that riding on the road will probably dislodge it. Eventually. And so off I go.
The next few miles are filled with random flingings of gravel off the tire and into my periphery, the not-very-soothing sound of it hitting my fenders, and still the drone of this new tire coating on the road. I hope it comes off.
Finally, in Marion, I pull into a gas station with convenience store attached. I am practically drooling at the thought of cold water, but just before I head in I notice a Subway next door.
Lunch. I haven’t eaten. I’m gonna git me one of them thar footlongs and a giant cup of freezing soda and I’m gonna sit inside that place and eat the guts out of that thing and swill down that drink and get a refill and more ice and eat and more ice and more drink and I’m not going to be in the sun and I will be so happy I will probably cry a little. If I have any liquid left in me for tears because I’m pretty sure I sweated it all out earlier.
Turkey. Wheat bread. Sweet peppers. And the biggest cup money can buy. In my ears, my gulping is in THX stereosound and before I even take a bite I am up again to get another icy beverage.
I don’t care what I look like. More so than usual.
Before long, the energy of the sandwich has revived me. I can’t drink any more, but I fill the cup to the brim with ice and have the brilliant idea of putting it into my water bottles for the rest of the miles. Time to test my one insulated bottle and see how it holds out.
Refueled, refilled, remounting and I’m off.
Although it’s just as hot and painful, I reach for the fast melting bottle and take a slug. The ice is almost gone in it, but I top off my slug with a sip from the insulated bottle and hear the clink of ice in it. The joy in my heart thrums along with each stroke. The power in my legs is increasing after the chow and I start putting my back into it.
A ferry is in my future. Illinois is in my future. Kentucky is fast disappearing out my back window.
Hills, climbs, heat and then I’m flying along a straight section of road and see in the distance cars waiting by a river. I have made it.
Cave in Rock, Illinois is but a boat float away. A boat float and a wait in the full sun queue away.
Two ladies on Vespas pull up behind me to wait.
“I wish I had your energy,” says one. I look around and realize she’s talking to me. She doesn’t know how little energy I have. She doesn’t know that if she had my energy she’d probably drop that pretty pink Vespa onto the angry road and scratch the crap out of it. That after, she’d just lay there looking up at the sky and feeling very sorry for herself.
But I smile and laugh and we chat a little about where I’m going. It passes the time and it’s not long before people are starting their engines and pulling onto the ferry. I am last aboard, choosing an open spot to the right of the platform and pulling Precious up against the railing. I obsess for a second about something falling off and into the Ohio before calming down and stepping back to take a photo of the boy on the boat. (The boy being Precious, of course.)
And we’re off. The ferry heaves its way to the right and churns water behind it to change directions. To push its way up and off towards the bank on the other side. It is a peaceful, easy ride and there’s a perception of it being somewhat cooler. The water slushing around has a lot to do with that. I snap some photos of the dirty brown river and the rock cliffs of Cave in Rock.
It’s a quick ride and again, I’m last off. Past the line of traffic waiting to board, I turn right and into the park where I plan to camp. Plan to camp. Plan to. Plan. And then I don’t. As I wheel up the road I’m taken past the turn for the campground and find myself being carried towards the cabins.
They are not cheap, but even as the woman says the price, I decide I don’t care. That I need to be in a cool room and sitting on the floor of a shower while water rains down on me.
It is a good decision. The cabin is cute with a verandah that overlooks the river. After unpacking and showering and opening my eyes to what it is to be human again, I wander off into the afternoon air. Camera in hand, I head off to find the mythical Cave in Rock that this town is named after.
It is literally a cave in the rock. It smells damp and earthy. Pirates booty was once here, I think, then giggle to myself about how my booty is now here.
Time to get this booty to bed and falling asleep to rubbish TV.
Another tough day. Another hot one. Another one on the way, according to the woman at the lodge.
“Gonna break on Thursday though,” she says, cheerily. I nod, but my heart is suspicious.
Rules of the road.
4. Heat will make you hate. But you’ll get over it eventually.
Date: August 19, 2010
From: Sebree, KY
To: Cave in Rock, IL
Distance: 55.94 miles
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