Sunday, February 22, 2015

2014: A night In Brussels (Illinois), a day in the rain

Freestyle Camping - Brussels, Illinois
(Day 3 of my 2014 Connect the Dots Tour)

Finding out that I had made a wrong turn and was out of daylight was kind of a shock. I wasn’t going to risk any twilight riding on winding roads, and with Pere Marquette State Park now a good 15 miles away, I would have been setting up camp in the dark.


I asked about nearby campgrounds, and then the tavern owner suggested a spot behind his building, next to a phone substation blockhouse and a small park. The site was level and grassy, with a line of trees for privacy, and he said it would be good protection from the storms they were expecting around 11 pm. (Storms!?)


It is ironic that just the day before, I passed the first place I had ever “jungle-camped”, over 35 years before. I know there are some that espouse nothing but jungle camping or freestyling, but I am just not wired that way, but I was very pleased to have that problem solved.


Now that I had a place to stay, I looked for outlets to start charging things, since I had been “dark” for about an hour and half, and I knew that Linda was a little concerned. First priority was my iPhone, which I let charge while I ate a basket of wings (when in Rome, or Brussels . . .). I got a partial charge on my phone, only to learn I had no coverage. So asked the bartender about a payphone, and she just handed me the phone from behind the bar. There is a lot to be said for midwest kindness.


I caught things up quickly with Linda, explaining my wrong turn and where I would be spending the night, and she asked if I had been watching the weather; that “storms” thing again. Apparently the St. Louis area was expecting overnight thunderstorms, and rain in the morning and early afternoon, but maybe I would miss it.


So I finished my second order of wings while my iPhone finished charging (tip, it charges a lot faster in Airplane mode, and I didn’t have coverage anyway) and then started charging a backup battery. (Yes, a dual output charger on the next trip.) I headed out to set up my tent in the long twilight, finishing up a little before 9 pm. I returned to the bar to collect my battery and take a simple “shower” in the restroom. My big backup battery was charged to about 50% by the time I finally called it a night and went back to the tent a little bit after 10.


The town was quiet, with only an occasional barking dog. I wasn’t visible from the road, but I could hear an occasional car going past. By 10:30, the first flashes of lightning were visible, and some light rain followed, nothing major. The overnight storms were tracking south, and I was only on the edge of the front. The tavern closed around 11:30, with the parking lot around the corner from tent emptying out.

I slept well, only waking once during a light rain. I was up about 6:30, opening the tent to a windy grey morning, with very dark grey skies to the east. Just as I had finished breaking camp I could feel a front getting close, and the eastern sky was almost black. I walked my bike to the road, and crossed the street just as a wall of rain came through. I got under the awning of the town’s other tavern, which was open for breakfast.


I took a seat at the bar and ordered a breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast. A flat screen TV on the wall was playing the local weather, which showed an almost solid circle of green all the way from St. Louis and across Illinois to Springfield. It was becoming more apparent by the minute I was not going to ride around the rain today. I sat there almost an hour, watching the TV news, and making some notes. It was a driving rain outside, the temps right about 60. This was not the August weather I was expecting.


The local regulars were coming and going, farmers and delivery drivers for coffee and breakfast, some grandparent’s with grandkids. There was the typical discussion of what the rain would do for the fall yields, who had just cut hay, or who would need bulldozer work. In 40 years of biking to meals in small town cafes and diners, only town names and faces change, the conversations and small talk remain the same.


The TV weather radar shows a break of sorts, and I paid my bill and headed outside. All my rain gear is on; jacket, pants, long sleeve base layer and helmet cover, even switching to the amber night lens in my riding glasses. It is a light, steady rain as I leave town the way I came, carefully watching my speed with wet brakes and puddled roads. At the T-intersection from the night before, I realize that from where I stood to consider my options, the sign for the Brussels Ferry had been directly behind me. That experience now gives a whole new meaning to “not looking back” and “hindsight”.

The Brussels Ferry across the Illinois

I continue on, 8 more easy miles down to the ferry landing for crossing the Illinois River. While I am waiting for the ferry to return from the other side, I realize a chilly 10 to 15 mph wind is blowing up the river, the direction I will be riding the next 15 miles to Alton. It is a choppy, cold crossing in the rain on the open deck ferry, just another barge with a permanently attached diesel tug. The ferry lands, and I gingerly walk up the slick iron deck to pavement, clear the landing area and remount my bike.
Great River Trail, Near Alton, Il.


I am now on the Great River Trail, which alternates between a wide highway shoulder and a multi-use path beneath the bluffs and foothills along the river. This is all familiar territory, where Linda, the boys and I rode in 2003 on a 45 mile adventure from Pere Marquette State Park to Alton back, at the time the longest two tandem ride for the four of us.  It is just a short stretch along the Illinois, and then I am on the Mississippi, after passing the Pere Marquette memorial just above Grafton.  For stretches the road is just 20 feet above the river, the wind driven waves angrily slapping the bank, audible over the hiss of wet tires and the stiff wind.

As I come into Grafton, I leave the road side to follow the paved trail along the river, but after only a few yards the trail is coated in 2” of silty mud. Heavy rains the week before had put the river over the trail, and my wheel encased in a two inch thick layer of fine, sticky mud. I am able to dismount my bike without falling and then push my bike ahead a few yards to clear pavement, but I will need a hose or a car wash to clean off the mud. As I push my now un-rideable bike forward, the mud is so thick on the wheels that I have to disconnect my cantilever brakes, and my fenders peel of layers clay-like mud like a pottery knife.
River mud.


I end up walking a quarter mile and two more stretches of river mud before I am back to the main road. I spot a house with huge garden and a coiled hose, and after a knock and polite request, I use the hose to clean the mud off everything, including my shoes; the running water from the hose actually feeling warmer than than rain. I remount my panniers, and walk back to road, another half hour of mis-adventure behind me.


The stretch from Graton to Alton should have been easy riding but now I am head-on into the wind, which is blowing unobstructed up the river valley. I am back to my steady 1,000 feet a minute, 11 mph, with with white caps on the river waves beside me. The rain is leaving long puddles on the highway, but most of the light traffic gives me leeway and avoids splashing me as I ride the wide shoulder bike path. I had hoped to take some picture of the sheer bluffs along the way, but they are lost in the rain and fog. The next 10 mile takes almost an hour.

Lewis & Clark Bridge, Alton, Il.

I roll into Alton as the rain breaks and find a McDonalds for WiFi, electrical outlets and a hot meal. Only after sitting down with my food do I realize they have their air conditioning running full-blast, and it is colder INSIDE than out. After 2 hours of biking in the rain, I didn’t expect to risk hypothermia while eating.


While I am sitting there in all my rain gear on, eating and trying to keep warm, another one of those odd coincidences occur, when a family from Carmel, Indiana stops in for a meal. They are only acquaintances from school functions, but we exchange hellos and a “what brings you here” conversation.


It is time to move, since I need to ride to warm up. Just as I prepare remount, the sky darkens and the rain resumes in earnest. I weave my way along the trail, as it crosses a casino parking lot, and then up and over the approaches to the Lewis & Clark Bridge, a spectacular straight stay suspension bridge over the Mississippi. I snap one picture, the rain and wind making it difficult to linger.



The paved trail is now along the top of the massive levees, dropping down occasionally to cross access roads. I come up on a set of locks, something I have always found fascinating. As I roll past, a tug with it’s tow of barges are entering the locks headed down river, and an upbound houseboat is waiting to enter the other end.


The levee top trail slowly moves farther east from the River. Off to the south, I should be able to see the St. Louis skyline, but it it is lost also lost in the rain and overcast. I stop for a warm-up at another Lewis and Clark monument, this one a an observation tower and museum. I have about 35 miles in at this point, and it is already 3:30 in the afternoon. Between the wind, rain, mud and last nights wrong turn, I am a good half day behind where I expected to be. A check of the weather does show any relief in the rain for the rest of the day. My planned over night is still 60 miles away, and this was to be one of my shorter days.


I turn east and inland toward Edwardsville, Illinois, leaving the river behind, now on another road side bike trail. It is an easy 5-6 miles of river bottom, the continuing rain and overcast now makes it feel almost like evening, and all the traffic is driving with headlights. At the eastern edge of the bottomland, on the outskirts of Edwardsville, I turn onto 4-lane trunk road, and start riding the steady grade up out of the valley. If flattens out after a quarter mile, and I turn off into a hotel parking lot. I roll up to the the entrance, lean my bike against a wall and take one more look at the forecast with my phone.


It’s time to call it day, and I walk in to get a room for the night.

Time to dry out.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

2014: Day Two continues, be ready for Plan B

St. Charles trail head, 130 miles of Katy Trail behind me
My Connect the Dots Tour continues, with the second half of day 2.

Within 15 miles, a loose rear rack had dumped my load, and I had fixed two flat tires. This was not a good start to the day, and a third flat could make it worse, as I realized my patch kit was back home in my rack trunk. I was now riding gingerly, watching for every possible rut or bump in the trail (both flats had been pinch flats, the tires were holding up fine).

As I continued east, I approached another section of limestone bluffs, towering over the trail and river. Twenty foot tall river navigation towers now came with each bend in the river, though I had yet to anything on the water larger than an occasional fishing skiff and a crew doing levee work. With my day already over an hour behind “schedule”, I forced myself to relax, enjoy the scenery and take pictures.
Work on the river banks

At Marthasville, a restored KATY caboose was home to a trail side hot dog and ice cream stand, and it was the first I found that was open since leaving Columbia. I enjoyed a Diet Coke and a hot dog, and asked about a hardware store, but no luck, the caboose was the only thing open in town. I continued east, still nursing my bike over over bump or rut that might be my catastrophic third flat. 
A massive limestone over hang along the trail

At the SR47 Trail Head I found a sign for a bike shop, and gave them a call, but they were almost 6 miles off the trail. The owner offered to meet me with a tube, but could not leave for another hour and a half. I weighed my options and moved on.

The small towns of Dutzow, Augusta, Matson all rolled by, and finally at Defiance, I found a town that was open, and it had a bike shop. I picked up another tube, a patch kit and used their floor pump. I also topped off my Gatorade bottles and CamelBak, and enjoyed an ice cream bar. But the one thing I did not do was “top-off” my my iPhone or back-up batteries, something I did not think about until I was leaving town.

By now it was already 3 in the afternoon, and I still had 20 miles of Katy left, just to make St. Charles. The haze had burned off by now, and when not in a tunnel of trees, I was riding under sunny skies, into a light easterly wind. Just as I was trying to make time, it was against a headwind.

After Defiance, the next town up was Weldon Springs, and I was now transitioning out of rural Missouri and bumping against the outer edges of greater St. Louis. The first sign was a gated community running along the trail, and the next was overhead. Just after watching a deer cross the trail ahead of me, I started to hear a low rumble. I came around a slight bend, and suddenly I was in midst of a huge construction park for a new bridge across the Missouri for I-40. The old and new bridges were over a 100 feet above the trail, the highways running across the top of the riverside bluffs.
The Katy crossing under the new & old I40 brides over the Missouri

After crossing under I-40, there were more signs of suburbia along the trail. I began to see more riders and walkers, and parks and subdivision abutted the trail. Yet the Katy continued to surprise me, as I would again be enclosed by vine covered trees clinging to rough rock cuttings on my left, with marshy tree filled sloughs on my right.
Lewis & Clark statues in St. Charles

Finally the transition was complete, as the trail began to weave along the edges of parking lots, old freight yards and a sports arena. I crossed under I-70, and within a few miles I was in St. Charles, the starting point for Lewis and Clark. Near their bicentennial monument, I asked a passerby to take my picture, and after 130 miles, I left the Katy to begin the pavement portion of my trip. For a short stretch I rolled along the brick main street, passing a restaurant where I had dined at with Linda’s family.

It was 5 pm, with 65 of my planned 85 miles to my overnight and just about 2 ½ hours of daylight. I was working my way through St. Charles during rush hour, navigating by iPhone, but another issue started coming up. The battery was running low, and I had used up both back-up batteries. I had dinner on the bike for in camp, so I hit a quick shop to top off my water bottles, grabbed a snack, and continued on.

A rode a few miles on combination of neighborhood street and trunk roads, and crested a hill just before I crossed I360. This brought me to another family landmark, a fast food intersection from our frequent road trips between home and family in Missouri. I was now looking north and out over the floodplains of the Mississippi, and somewhere ahead was the Golden Eagle ferry crossing.

The retail and industrial parks north of St. Charles rapidly gave way to floodplain farmland. A hazy overcast contributed to the late afternoon sky, another reminder the remaining daylight would soon be limiting my options. Once I had road signs guiding me, I put my phone in “Airplane” mode, hoping to save enough battery for more navigation help later. With pavement and little traffic, I relished the chance to open up the pace a little bit, now riding a steady 16/17 mph.

I made the final turn toward the ferry landing, and the farm land gave way to sloughs and marshy woods. I came to a final bend, and a line of cars was was waiting. The rivers was almost 1/2 mile wide, and the running ferry was on the opposite shore. It took about 10 minutes for it to cross the river and land, and while I was waiting, my iPhone finally shut down.
Crossing the Mississippi on the Golden Eagle (Illinois) ferry

After boarding the ferry, the 10 minute crossing of the Mississippi included all the familiar sounds of throbbing marine diesels, water slapping against the side of the ferry, and chains rattling on steel as they were pulled by the deck hand. (Between the Great Lakes, the Northwest and the great rivers, I seem to have knack for working ferry crossings into bike tours.)

Leaning over the side, I snapped a few picture evening sky on the river, and the approaching Illinois shoreline. A busy tavern was just above the landing, and I considered stopping here, but my male optimism held out for the making the Brussels ferry, after the deckhand told me it was just 5-6 miles and combination of turns I almost followed.

Back on the road, I started with a steep climb out of Golden Eagle, cresting the first hill after about a half mile. It was just the first, as the road now followed a gently climbing ridge with rolling green pastures falling off on either side. After another half mile of climbing I could now see across the Mississippi behind me, and to the east, the Illinois River valley. The quiet pastoral view was breathtaking. Or maybe it was all that climbing after almost 80 miles.

I passed a couple intersections, all gravel roads. My Illinois State map (navigation Plan B) did not have enough detail, but I should have been riding around the southern edge of this finger of land between two rivers. But the scale of the map did not provide enough detail to really show where I was, and the hazy evening sky did not give a true indication of true west or east.
The land between the rivers.

After 5 miles, I came to a T-intersection, with a sign indicating Brussels to the left, but nothing to the right, and nothing to indicate the ferry landing. I was headed to the “Brussels” ferry, so why not head to Brussels? It was already after 7, with sunset looming. So I choose left, and didn’t look back (a fateful decision, it turns out). After a couple of miles of rolling hills, I was still climbing, and just assumed the ferry would be a steep drop from the ridge, just like the Golden Eagle ferry I had started from.

Another 3 miles, and I saw a church steeple rising from a cluster of buildings, and was passed by a couple cars. I finally rolled into town and up the “main” street, with two open taverns, but no sign indicating the ferry landing. So I doubled back to the first first tavern I had passed, and leaned my bike against the side. I was at 85 miles, and it was early twilight, so I was running out of options.

I walked inside, and up to bar, which had a half dozen locals. The twenty something bartender came up to me asked if I wanted anything. I politely asked “How far is the Brussels ferry from here?”

“The Ferry? Oh, it’s about 9-10 miles down the road from here.” She answered, indicating the direction I had entered town from.

I was spending the night in Brussels.