Thursday, September 13, 2007
I've paid the ferryman and crossed to the other side. This is a big milestone in my traverse of the country. From here I head mostly due south for over 250 miles into Missouri just west of St. Louis. From there, it's due west again for the astronomical tedium of Kansas and eastern Colorado. You may see me begging for corn and soy after a few days out there. We'll see.
I spent the night before this stage in a city park--quiet, no bothers, and another first: I was able to just throw my pad out on the grass--no bugs or significant humidity to speak of--and cool. It was in the low 40's when I got up at 4am for the ritual coffee and packing ceremonies. My fingers and toes were a bit numb for the first hour or so on the road. The sweet clear light of autumn was in the air; my headwinds were gone, cycling the empty county roads a vast pleasure.
The night before was rather more "interesting." In a small, central Illinois town I was set to camp in another town park. I'd done a bit of cleaning up in the men's room and was cooling off under the pavilion. The bugs, however, were fierce, the mosquitoes and flies contesting for which could take the most blood. I was about to put on long pants and such when I was greeted by a fellow walking by with a soda he'd purchased from a machine in the park. Ron was a nice enough sort, and before long he'd offered me his place to cool off, "relax" (something he kept repeating) and escape the bugs. He stood close to six feet tall with closely cut hair but going bald, a thin mustache, heavy in the belly with thick fleshy arms and soft round hands. It was fairly clear from his speech that he was probably a homosexual, but this did not really concern me. To each his own, I say. Ron seemed particularly lonely and made a point of emphasizing that he lived by himself. In retrospect I should have been more attentive to some of these clues.
I moved my gear over to his house only about twenty yards or so from the edge of the park and went in to escape the insects. His home was small, just one restroom, and paneled in dark wood. In the front room, images and busts of John F. Kennedy and Lincoln were everywhere--pencil drawings, a rug draped over a chair, two dead presidents on display. Wall units with numerous cubbyholes held tiny toys and old products from early in the previous century--bars of soap, figurines of dogs, barnyard animals, antiques of every sort. A candle burned on a chest used as a coffee table, and a Cubs game played on the TV in the corner. Some of his displays were dusty, but the overall effect was orderly if cluttered.
We ordered pizza that we had to go out to pick up and got some beer on the way back. He graciously paid for the food. We talked about my travels, and he had an odd pronunciation of "wow," drawing out the "o" into and "ahh" to round out the sound: "waahhow," again and again. He would punctuate many of his statements: "Do ya here what I'm saying?" a tag expression I came to expect throughout the evening. I told him about my life in California, and he related some details about life as a traveling in-home caregiver to the elderly, a job he said he liked.
After dinner, we watched some TV, Law and Order. In the middle of some scene where the heroes were interrogating a witness, I caught a swift movement out of the corner of my right eye, and suddenly, Ron was sitting beside me, his hand caressing my bare leg. He was quite impressed by my physique, it seems, and needed some closer inspection. I was startled, of course, particularly since he knew two key pieces of information about me: I'm straight and happily married. His touch, which lasted but a moment, spoke to me on levels he never intended. His touch spoke to me more of sadness and loneliness than sex. One man, fifty years old, one house, three televisions. A solitary gay man in a tiny mid-western town, he wandered the countryside helping people but had not much life of his own. He spoke earlier of a cherished visit with a friend in Colorado but made it clear that he hadn't contacted her in over four years. He was a man without real goals, no motivation to travel, nothing but his closed house with piped-in images of the outside world. He seemed to be devoid of ambition but for the short term objective of bedding a world-class recumbent cyclo-tourist.
In rapid fire, he said, hand on my thigh: "This doesn't offend you, does it? This doesn't offend you?" That, however, was one thing he could be sure of.
I said in clear, measured tones: "You need to back off"--the law and the order.
As quickly as he'd arrived, he was back in his chair, staring at the screen as if nothing had happened. Later I imagined some snappy speech or comment I might have made, but I sat there, too, processing the strange, sad encounter. I couldn't imagine how hard is life must be in some ways in such a place. I was, however, certain about my desires and how they did not coincide with his. For some reason, I stayed, thinking, on the whole, that I had judged his character correctly. When I lay down on the floor to sleep, however, I began to have second thoughts. The darkness of the house closed around me. He'd spoken of his ill mother, but I imagined a dessicated mommy dearest in the next room, rocking her dusty way into eternity with a mummified toothy grin. What if he were armed and loaded? What if he came storming into the living room, .45 at the ready, and demanded what is was he so clearly wanted? On top of these troublesome images, a wall clock chimed obnoxiously every hour. I slept little and was up at my usual 4am to get packing.
Nothing happened. I had my coffee and cereal and pushed off into the chill September dawn, miles to go before I would sleep again. A melancholy mist hung over the land and my spirits as I wheeled westward. Feeling much as I had after leaving the faded glory of Buffalo, I found that the best antidote is movement, the straining and striving for the next town, the heart and lungs and muscles clearing my head and soul until only the effort remained, pushing back the darkness and loneliness.
Now, in Muscatine, Iowa, my circumstances could not be more different. I hit the library, and the first person I met was Dan Warschauer. A retired teacher, he had cycled long distance himself. Before long, I had a place to stay. I met is wife, Irene, who worked for the library. They lived outside of town about 10 miles, but they happened to have a van that would carry my bike, a good thing because I had already ridden 75 miles and was wanting to rest. We ate out last night, and I got to see some rehearsal of a play for which Dan, a musician, had composed some music. He and Irene are both classically trained in the musical arts. Dan taught music in public schools for thirty five years, and Irene plays flute for the local symphony. At their home on ten acres they have both a piano and harpsichord. My kind of people.
For now, it's some R&R. I head south tomorrow along the Great River, chasing the ghosts of Sam Clemens and Huck Finn. Until next time, this is the World Champion Recumbent Cyclo-Tourist in the Great American Outback signing off.