03 September 2008

Day two: what trail?

The cue sheets of the Grand Illinois Trail have been upgraded since I first rode the southern 75% of this sweeping loop. I remember there were some funky or obscure directions then. So far on this trip, apart from a mis-named street and a road I somehow missed, the GIT was doing all right by me. Friday began with a sense that I would be able to push west to Frankfort and then decide what to do about that Galena destination. So far, so good.

It's never fun packing up a wet tent, but breaking camp went surprisingly well, and after checking in with my Karen, I was on the road shortly after 8. The reload of the bike also was a pleasant surprise, and I rolled out of Rock Cut without rattles or tipping. Well, I rolled out of the campground ... actually identifying the path out of the park (Willow Creek Trail) was another matter. Thankfully the park's signboards ('you are here' is a reassuring message) were clear enough to make an informed guess at the way out. Through the park, along Willow Creek (apparently), and past Harlem High School, and then it was back on city streets in a Rockford suburb.

First cue sheet problem, "continue east on Gladys Dr" ... umm, but I believe I am heading west at this point, I haven't yet been on Gladys Drive, and going the opposite direction would put me in a classroom or cafeteria. Follow instinct, in that case - they have to mean west.

Instinct plays a significant part of any bike ride, navigating any new route, and especially touring. I often feel that there are times I am just giving my bike freedom to lead ... I love this especially when I am casually exploring a new cycling area. Rockford, it turns out, is fairly careful about marking its streets and the main recreational path that takes cyclists through town. But it was while in Rockford that I began to wonder why in the world the GIT route is not marked more carefully and completely. Well, expense, yes I get that. It would be interesting to know how much it would cost for a little logo plate to go up on existing signs and poles at key turns and crossings on streets and roads. Or a symbol painted on the road to indicate GIT turns. Either this is a regional resource meant to be increasingly and widely used, or it is just a good idea for the most diligent and intrepid touring cyclist. (I am neither.) Still, I must say that the cue sheets and the city's marks made it fairly easy, though not quick, to get through Rockford.

Then again, a little more signage? Would it be too much to just clarify a turn here and there? Or maybe in a new city, in an overcast day, before a true breakfast, with plenty of uncertainty ahead of me ... maybe it was just me. Working my way through downtown Rockford got a little complicated and I missed a turn. Well, it wasn't like being disoriented on a bicycle in the Loop, certainly. Downtown was pretty quiet for the 9:00 hour, and 1 hour, 40 minutes after leaving the state park I was on the west side of Rockford, 20 miles down on a day that could go as many as 100. It was here that I realized what a great decision it had been to not press on the night before. I thanked God for it.

Sound the ominous chord. Cunningham St becomes Cunningham Rd, and it is pleasant to be back in the country. It's a quick jaunt on a road with a narrow shoulder, then a turn to find ... No way, they can't mean that! Here's the short version: unless you are riding a mountain bike and want to enjoy some flatland single track, Do Not Under Any Circumstances consider taking the Pecatonica Path. Disregard the GIT cue sheets, regardless of the weather, if you are loaded for touring or riding any kind of road-worthy cycle. For all practical purposes, it does not exist.

I have marked my cue sheets accordingly. "Pecatonica" is an anglicized form of the native American word for murky meandering water" or "crooked river." Try to enjoy this some other way. I spent the rest of the morning, and the early afternoon, trying to see if there was any part of the trail that could I could actually ride. The 1/2 mile or less that I was on was beautiful with wild flowers and prairie grasses and more finches per linear meter than I have ever seen. But it was no touring bike trail. It is really negligent to keep this feature on the GIT cue sheets.

Long story short, I crossed the path at several points, thinking that maybe this time it would be traversable. It never was beyond a few meters in the little towns it goes through. Thankfully through the good service of the Illninois cycling maps, I could both enjoy this increasingly rolling country and stay on the roads to get to the towns I had my sights on this day.

Mile 30, 2 hours, 26 minutes, and my morning average speed was 12.4mph. It was time for breakfast, and Winnebago, IL, had just the place for me. Fraiche was the first cafe I saw, but I was certainly not going to be comfortable in a place with a French name, 3 hours into a ride after a night without a shower. No, it was "Village Family Restaurant," just beyond, that my bike led me to. It's sign as a Pancake House and its claim to Southern Cooking were not to be ignored. A storefront location, clearly a locals' place, it instantly reminded me of Southern Kitchen in Los Gatos, CA, a favorite of son Chris and a must-eat place when we visit him. And the breakfast I had there was worth the long, slow ride to get there. I ordered the German Breakfast special: potato pancakes (made fresh right there), 2 eggs and bacon; apple sauce for the pancakes, and perhaps the most classic cup of small town restaurant coffee I've had in a decade. And the waitress knew how to wait on a cyclist: she offered to refill my water bottles, asked about the ride, left the water pitcher on the table, was ready with the coffee but also understood that practical considerations kept me from that extra cup. And when she asked "will that be all?" she was not surprised when I asked, "ummm, do you have a sweet roll, or a cinnamon role, or something like that?" Mmmm, was it good! A quick trip to freshen up, after a long leisurely breakfast, and I was ready to roll out of Winnebago and on to ...

Where? Now it was beginning to look like the day could slip away from me. Freeport would be a cinch. But what was possible beyond that? I resolved to get there and then decide, but was already thinking that a turn back toward Oregon, IL, was the most likely option.

At this time, I still had vain hopes of actually spending time on the Pecatonica Trail. At the time, now knowning the etymology of the name, I was trying to find ways to play on the Latin Peccata, sin. Well, it may have been a sin to call this a cycle route trail, but it was stupidity to keep trying to make it work. Finally, at 4 hours, 21 minutes and 57.3 miles, I was on a street corner in Freeport. My average speed had risen to 13.1 miles. Man, I was cruisin'!

Here again, I failed to learn and apply the lesson of Thursday. I did actually look for some place to get water, on my way through Freeport. But I rode south out of town without having done so, mostly because I was too stubborn to go off route for it. By this time, my optimism about finding water was truly unfounded. But, ride south I did, on Baileyville Rd. In spite of now ample evidence, I reasoned that there would at least be a vending machine in this little town. It turns out Baileyville Rd does not even actually go through Baileyville ... you have to actually turn west and ride agout 50 yards or so to get there. And no, as you have already surmised, there is nothing really to be seen or had there. Even along "Commercial St."

Well, I had to get off Baileyville Rd. at that intersection anyway, and 50 yards west is not hard to backtrack. I headed west, on my way to Leaf River, the next likely town. By this time I was starting to feel the effects of the sun which had finally broken through about noon; the effects of the wind, which was pretty stiff out of the south (the direction of my route out of Freeport); and the effects of the long long low incline from Freeport to Baileyville. The afternoon was not going to be pleasant. I had enough liquid to keep me from panicking, but not enough to guarantee me a safe ride all the way into Oregon.

Slogging my way up Baileyville Rd into the southern wind, I thought that sign to German Valley looked promising. It's just hard to say - there might not be any "there" there, but it would have got me a respite from the wind as I rode east. Well, it couldn't have hurt ... my stop in Leaf River was all but a bust as far as refueling. I had plenty of food with me, and way more Gatorade powder than I needed, especially given my dwindling supply of water. But thank God the Leaf River Fire Department keeps a soda machine in working order. The Sierra Mist was my hydration salvation, the little shady park was my natural cooler, and as I took stock of my situation it was obvious that I needed to continue south into the wind, a little east, and had to get to Oregon before dark. The arrival at a campground with enough light to set up was no longer a shoo-in.

And, by the way, where the heck was everyone in Leaf River? Had they already left for the football game? Here I was at 82.6 miles, 6 hours and 19 minutes of riding behind me, my average speed had dropped to 13mph. And I had been fantasizing about Casey's General Store for a couple of hours already.

I was under the impression that every little town in Illinois has a Casey's. I don't know why. I had been stiffed often enough even on this trip. What keeps me dreaming like this? Maybe German Valley has one, I don't know and probably never will. Hey, tonight I can't even get a Casey's website to appear! On my way out of Leaf River I kept trying to get into places that might have water fountains - post office, closed; city offices, closed; library, closed. The Library was closed, before 5pm on a Friday?!? What is with this town? I began to pray that I would see someone out in their yard, and I could stop and ask for some water from a garden hose. It was a long, lonely, starting-to-be-parched, disappointing stretch into Oregon. It would have been very different had I simply gone off route long enough to find a convenience store in Freeport. What a dope.

To my very great pleasure, my ride into Oregon - I came in on a short stretch of Rte. 64 rather than take quieter roads and add several miles to this now-disappointing day - was almost completely free of auto competition. The road was in good shape, and coming from the west there is a beautiful long sweeping descent into downtown. Rather like riding into Lake Geneva from the west on WI-50. Only, on this day at this time, no cars! And there, on the very western edge of Oregon's downtown ... my fantasy come to life: Casey's General Store.

I know what I can get in a Casey's. I can get pizza by the slice, hot or cold sandwiches, of course any kind of candy or energy bar, chips, beverages. Every Casey's I've been in while riding has seemed surprised to have a cyclist there. Surely I'm not the only one to ever stop in? But the great thing Casey's has is a case of ice cream novelties. This day's ride ended with a Triple Chocolate Dove ice cream bar, a short can of Pringles, and the largest bottled water I could get cold. I sat in the grass by the curb and re-fueled to my heart's content, knowing that on the other side of town (what, a quarter mile further on?) I would be able to get supper. The girl at the counter asked if I wanted a bag. No, I said, I'll take it like this. "Do you eat this stuff while you ride?"

Supper was also long anticipated. There could hardly fail to be a Subway in Oregon, and in fact I'm pretty sure I knew that for sure. A 12-inch sub fits nicely under the flap of a Camelback Rogue, so I was well supplied for my last short mile or so up to Lowden State Park. It was kind of critical that there be a campsite there; I wasn't sure I could make it to the other state park on the other side of town.

Sure enough there was. And for $10 I got a site and access to running water, flushing toilets, and a hot shower. Now that is a great way to end a day full of disappointing cue sheets, a stiff head wind, and ignorant hydration decisions. After setting up camp and devouring my sub and Pringles, I took a brief walk through the campground then settled in to a quick review of Hebrew vocab and, as it got dark, another episode of "Wait, Wait." You know, after all, it really doesn't get much better than this!

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