7/9/15: 78 miles, Goreville, Ill., to Chester, Ill.
Woof. We got pounded by rain overnight. I ended up cooking dinner under my rainfly and eating dinner in my tent. After what was a wet night, we slowly packed up camp and made the long, steep climb out of the campsite. Rain beckoned once again, making the decision to indulge in a big breakfast at Delaney’s in Goreville even easier:
What a breakfast. Eggs, hashbrowns, pancakes, bacon, French toast, coffee. The brazen overconsumption of calories at the beginning of the day is still one of the top reasons I love bike touring.
John and I chatted with a table of old timer regulars about our trip, and when we weren’t talking, they turned their attention to another table of well-dressed blueheads and flirted with them like a lunch table of grade schoolers.
At another table, a guy named Mike and his grandson asked us about our trip. Mike said he was from Elmhurst, prompted after I told him I was from Chicago. The old timers left, and Mike left with his grandson. When John and I asked for our check, the waiter, Josh, told us that Mike paid for our entire breakfast. That’s not something we experienced yet. Even though it was raining again, John and I were beaming. We resolved to pay it forward.
In Carbondale, the sun broke through and dried up the road. We rode through Southern Illinois University’s campus, and found a laundromat. Murphysboro was the next town, which spit us out on a Mississippi River levee route in Gorham. (The TransAm main route follows a hillier route to the east. We took the alternate.) Perhaps we assumed there’d be a convenience store or gas station along the way, because we got real low on water. But there wasn’t one to be found. Just a few Port-a-Pottys near Union Pacific rail yards.
On the north end of Gorham, John and I rode by a couple sitting on their front porch.
“You know, maybe we can ask those folks where we can get water around here,” John suggested. He already was making a U-turn before I could agree.
The couple, Bobbi and Chuck, said there wasn’t anything until a bar in the next town. But they offered to fill our bottles for us. They invited us on their porch to chat, too. Chuck was a truck driver, and Bobbi usually traveled with him. They’d driven hundreds of thousands of miles, and had lived in Gorham their whole lives. When we told them Chester was our destination, they warned that the levee was closed because the recent rains. We sat on their porch while they checked a website, which said the levee was closed as of three days ago. But it hadn’t rained much since. Chuck and Bobbi drew us a route around the levee, but it would’ve caused us to backtrack 10 miles. We thanked them for the water, and rode down the street and out of sight so we could call the Randolph County sheriff’s office.
Not to undermine Bobbi and Chuck’s efforts, but we didn’t believe the most recent levee status was three days old. How would people get around? We decided to get out of sight and make the call ourselves. Sure enough, a deputy answered and said the levee was open on IL-3 between Rockwood and Chester. While we were at it, I called the Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge in Chester to see if we could stay there, since it was listed as a hostel for bike travelers on our ACA maps.
The levee route followed farm roads and the top ridge of, well, the levee. It gave us a great view of the Big Muddy, as well as a clear panorama of what was yet another approaching thunderstorm taking shape and getting a running start across Missouri.
John and I tried to outrun the storm, and for the most part we did. Clouds rolled over, we entered the big levee gate at Rockwood, and make tracks for the last 10 miles to Chester.
That’s when the rain machine turned on. We got pummeled by wind, rain, and hail. We turned on our lights as dusk came quickly. We didn’t have much gas left after trying to outrun the storm, and every passing set of headlights threw rain at us. Stressful pedaling. John and I cursed at the cars, the weather, and each other. It never got personal. Just mutually therapeutic.
The rain tapered off while the road, which was mostly flat into Chester, pitched upward. We could see a mudline along the hillside, well over our heads, where the river had flooded days before. Adding insult to injury, Chester, Illinois, is built up on an elevated bluff above the river. It threw one last two-mile climb at us, as if to see how bad we really wanted to get there. We looked up the Eagles lodge on Google Maps. Of course it was on the other side of town. We were soaked, and after several days of rain, so was our gear. We couldn’t wait to get inside.
Upon arriving at the Eagles lodge, it was clear the place was bumping despite the crappy weather. John waited with our bikes while I went inside.
A booming jukebox blasted me as soon as I opened the door. There were big screen TVs with all the sports. Cute waitresses darting by with trays of hot bar food. Bartenders fishing pint glasses from coolers and loading them with glistening, golden beer. Almost every seat was full. And off the back patio, a volley popped back and forth over between two teams of young women. Yep. We earned this.
The bartender, a cute, short punch of a woman with tattoos, introduced herself as Bubbles. “You called earlier, didn’tcha!” she said, handing me wood baton tethered to a set of keys. She barked instructions at me over the noise of the bar: one key for the bike lodge, the other for the locker rooms.
I found John outside, shivering and wet. “How is it?” he asked. I just smiled and told him to poke his head inside the bar. Morale booster.
We made our way around back where the “bike lodge” was. In reality, it was the size of a backyard storage shed, not all unlike those prefabbed shacks that Home Depot sells:
Inside, it had an air conditioner, some books and magazines, and a guest book. Luckily it was just the two of us, because it was crowded with the nine bunks, made from plywood and two-by-fours. Plus bikes. We spread out our gear on the empty bunks. I immediately grabbed a quick shower and met John upstairs in the bar. His spirits certainly turned around quickly. I found him grinning ear-to-ear with an empty seat next to him at the bar. I sat down, we ordered a few rounds of beers, and half the dinner menu.
About half the bar came around to talk to us. One guy, called Jeff, said he had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last year. He bought us a round of shots and we exchanged travel tales. At about the point where we could’ve called it a night, a fresh round of locals flooded into the bar for a woman’s 50th birthday. They roped us into their rounds of shots — Makers and Fireball were all I could recall — and eventually had us dancing on the bar.
And there was some bar raffle game John kept spending cash on, but I couldn’t figure it out.
At last call, John and I remained, red-faced from a well-earned bender. Because had been a bartender in Columbus before this trip, John smartly asked Bubbles if she needed help restocking the bar for the night. She slapped her list of beers up on the bar. “Better get back here and get to work!”
And there we were. John was in the cooler, finding the cases and clumsily handing them to me. I shuffled them over to Bubbles, who tore open the cases and fed bottles into the refrigerators in a game of bar Tetris. There I was in the middle, kicking empty cases out of the way while trying to keep up with John. For our efforts, Bubbles poured us a couple beers to go. John and I stumbled down the hill toward our shack, trying not to spill.