The world tour has begun.
No time for fear. Honesty and reality, mixed with a whittling down of that less exciting chaff that surrounds the diverse gems of travelling, be they shiny or subtle. My life is strange on the road, and though even my “every-day” experiences are unusual by former standards, I cannot write about them all. I’ve pared it down, for your sakes and mine, but still retain a record of other items of interest, to be documented as they amass.
I left Madison on Sunday September 16th, having postponed my departure one day, so that I could visit the Wisconsin land that my family is buying at least once before I left. The days immediately preceding my departure were quite hectic, as could be expected. The bacchanal send-off & gear display (read: going-away party) was a huge success; almost everyone I invited showed up, most bearing lightweight anti-homesick charms, as requested, to stave off loneliness on the road. It was a night to remember, for many reasons.
The next day, after all that Pabst and whiskey, I was glad to have decided to postpone. I didn’t get a whole lot more done toward leaving prepared, but my body got a little chance to recover, and my spirit spent its weight where it wanted to. That night it was as if everything superfluous had already been stripped away, leaving only those rawest of things that surround my beating heart. Nothing else mattered. I should’ve been going over final checklists; instead I was saying goodbye.
The morning of my departure found me scrunched up, too neurotic to eat. I still had a multitude of loose ends to tie off, but only the most precious were even attempted. Most are still dangling. And I still had some tough goodbyes to make.
Back at the house, I sat with my cat, Horatio, who was cleaning himself and decided I needed cleaning too. I let him lick my forehead and hair for… a long time, until my phone rang. Maybe I was just dirty, but it felt as strong as a goodbye as any I’ve gotten. My lil’ Ho.
D-Rock, Sketchy D, Chris, and Emily showed up to ride me out of town. They watched, probably in sentimental amusement, as I jammed and pried, compressed and folded, stretched and bent, until all the gear was packed and on the bike. I used more haste than organization that day, but I figured, “As soon as I leave, I’m going to have more time than I know what to do with.” The important thing was not to delay any further. To cross that point of no return.
Whoo…getting close now. One last check around the house, and it better be a good one, because this ain’t no two-week vacation to Mexico. The finishing touch: my greasy bike-shop toothbrush shiv, gorilla-taped to the down tube, including an easy-off tab in case I need to quick-draw that shit. Thanks Ruckus.
And the tour was on! Still in the hood, my first planned stop was Machinery Row Bicycles, where I had a few more hugs and Nate gave me a huge smoke-bomb. I’ll find a good use for that one. Good luck at work guys!
Up the capitol hill(via the Convention Center ramp) to State Street, for one final stop at the good ol’ Irish Pub. My favorite watering hole. There, Daniel awaited me with Powers Irish Whiskey, straight-up in a shot glass, and a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “Ah, my last shot at the Irish,” I say, and we retire to the patio for a few rounds. Outside, my most esteemed and closest friend proceeded to bestow gifts upon me. A tooth, “to cut my way through anything.” A crystal, “to cleanse my passage.” A flag, a scarab necklace, an armband, a journal, a brownie, an earring… the list goes on. D.
Before I got too drunk, as tends to happen at the Irish, I went inside to say goodbye to Michael Richards. “Ah, now this is my last shot at the Irish,” I say, hoping it really is this time. A simple toast, with no words wasted between us. Man, I love that place.
And on, to stop number three: Budget Bicycle Center. My other bike shop.
I ride in, lean up the rig, and Vee hands me a half-full bottle of Three-Buck Chuck. Josh handed me another, this one full. Alex had a cute little thing of Tiger Balm for me; that should come in handy – I know my knees are going to need some breaking-in.
While I found the helmet I needed and swigged on the wine, Roger Charly himself posted my flier: “Today in Survival History: Heavily Loaded Bicycle Touring.” It’s an honor and a pleasure to have worked for the man. I’m sure I will again some day.
A guy named Tim, who happened to have been a mechanic and bicycle tourist, just happened to be in the shop at that time, and drew me a map with an invitation to his property that night. He handed me a cash donation with the best of luck. Never made it to his place, but thanks Tim!
Now quite flushed with alcohol and emotion, I let my escort find the way out of town. I’d look at a map tomorrow.
We took the bike path to Lake Farm Road, which happens to be the exact same road I took out of town on my last bike tour to Mexico. Very fitting. At the sign that said “Welcome to Madison” on the back, we stopped for photos and goodbyes. With a few heart-crushing hugs and a kiss from a beautiful girl, I finally left town. Sparkles, bless his soul, decided to ride with me a ways farther.
We went over my first rollers of the tour, nice Wisconsin farmland. Derek was taking it easy so I could keep up. We aimed for a park in McFarland, but the Lake Waubesa loop is way less convenient than the Lake Monona loop, and at dusk we stopped so he could turn around.
I tested my wine opener(a drywall screw gripped with my Leatherman pliers) which worked superbly, and we sat drinking and smoking in some gravel pull-off. I got directions from a nice minivan, which Derek confirmed with my map, and then he was off to burn home in the failing light after giving me his trusty well-used Planet Bike helmet blinker. He had fifteen minutes of light and a nice long warm-up ride to get him started; I’m sure he made it fine.
I took some time getting my lights working, and was off. At some point later, beyond a reasonable backtrack distance, I realized I had forgotten the wine bottle(half-full), and the cork with my wine screw in it! Ah, well – I can get another wine opener. And perhaps someone will find evidence of that final toast some day.
It was easy to get to the park. I scouted the whole of it in no time, chose a site, and pulled up. No park ranger around, office closed. Not that I wanted to pay 22$ for a campsite, but I did want to buy some firewood. Instead I walked around collecting oak tree detritus that hadn’t been raked up yet, and actually made quite a nice pile. Enough to cook by twice, and that’s all I really need. I pitched my tent as far from the site’s driveway as possible; maybe I’d be overlooked in the morning.
After a quiet while of wishing I had some wood to just burn,
It was wonderful, as always, to just be with her.
She arrived with wood, and wine, and we >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
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<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< slowly drove off and I had to sit down. I left a lot behind when I departed, but leaving her… it makes me feel more insane than any other crazy aspect of this trip. I was missing her before I even left.
I was still seated motionless, just… pining, when the park ranger came by for morning rounds.
“Did you sleep here last night?” he asks me. Damn, here we go. “That’s 22 dollars!” he scolds. “Ah, man, come on – I’m on this bike tour, and I don’t even have a car.” I might as well try. After a slight hesitation, he asks, “Are you Charles?” He had seen me in the WSJ article, and he was getting out of his truck, conceding: “Okay, I’ll give you a freebie.” We talked for a bit, he goodlucked me and drove off. Nice.
Despite my emotionally drained, sleep-deprived, hung-over and hungry state, I found myself enjoying that first real day of biking. I remember yelling “Yeee-hah!” at some guy as I scored a new max speed down a hill. My first night of camping was remarkable; the shady afternoon nap in the breeze of a soft prairie had my mind waxing poetry; the stars took my breath away when I finally laid back after dinner – I had forgotten about them; and the paranoia of being alone on strange land after dark came back to me in strength. Is someone trying to steal my bike??!? Oh no, that’s just a rusty gate hinge, go back to sleep.
I decided to ride through Beloit on my way down to Chicago, and made the mistake of asking a woman at a bus stop for directions. She takes the bus, duh. The bank teller was much nicer, much more intelligible. The cop at the museum was envious (most cops tell me that) but he gave me some great directions. On my way out of town I stopped by the Schwinn dealer / outdoor supply shop and shot the breeze with the owner Ted for awhile. He said he didn’t like kevlar tires, they dropped a whole mile per hour from his average, but then he starts talking about how many flats he’s gotten, and how bad the Beloit roads are with broken glass. I told him I had the most armored tires I could find. He gave me a Wisconsin “Share the Road” sticker which I applied to my rear rack.
Somewhere along State Line Highway outside of town, my rear tire started slopping out, side-to-side with all the weight – a slow leak! I was worried my conversation with Ted had jinxed me, but I got the wheel off(without removing the panniers) and discovered a tiny hole right by the valve – not a glass puncture. I guess it’s my fault then, but anyway, it’s weird… this, the first flat tire of my tour, was the same type of flat I suffered at the very end of my last bike tour. A good sign, or a bad? I guess I’m just picking up where I left off.
I stopped for a rest one day, right on the side of the deserted road, and, laying down to ease my aching body, putting my hands behind my head, I realize I’m under an apple tree. Yum! I was able to jump for one that hadn’t fallen yet, but then it was down to either throwing apples at apples, or climbing, and I was way too tired to climb it. First toss, almost straight up – Bam! I got it!! “One hit – Whooo!” I yell. Nobody heard me. That big red apple landed right next to me, and I saved it for later.
I didn’t get to eat that apple though. I visited an equestrian park the next day, carefully riding my steed down the sign marked “HORSE PATH.” The first person I asked, a young woman in riding gear, with snobbery under her nose, informed me that “I don’t think bikes are allowed. I don’t think you’ll get too far.” But nobody hassled me, and the Mexican guy at the entrance to the stable let me go inside no problema. The animals were gorgeous. I knew I had that apple, and I just had to do it. A mare named Melita got it, both palms up, just before she was led off to compete. “Good luck!”
I followed the Illinois Prairie Path from McHenry, IL, down to Crystal Lake where my aunt Sarah, uncle Dave, and cousin Katie live. Charged my phone at Wheel Werks on Main Street, then surprised Sarah at work, and as I finished every scrap of food she gave me, Katie came down and convinced me to take it easy and stay with them that night. “Take advantage while you can.” And indeed, shower, email, laundry – all wonderful amenities I know I’ll miss. They took me to an Irish Sports Pub(no Powers) for a huge dinner and a half, and I got to see some TV! Don’t even get that back home. It was great to see them all, and a wave of nostalgia came over me as I bedded down on the floor in their furnished basement, exactly where I stayed on my way through Crystal Lake last bike tour.
In the morning Katie took me out for breakfast, and we talked about Africa. I’m almost convinced to extend my time there; Egypt does sound like too much to pass by. Northern Sahara, what?
Back on the I.P.P., I realized I was pretty close to my next destination. Good – I go slow. I stopped for lunch at yet another of the confusing, legendless maps on that trail(the ‘You Are Here’ tags are pinned down with two different colored thumbtacks, in two different locations) and eventually a local jogger told me what to look for. I made it to The Bike Shop in Glenn Ellyn and met up with Andy Breun. He hooked me up with a new cyclometer, and back at his house I installed it while drinking a Chicago beer. Refreshing. He also gave me as many CLIF bars as I could carry. When the kids got home, he and I and his wife Patty drove into the city with his kids Drew and Ben for dinner and drinks. I won’t say much about the traffic, because I realize some people need to drive cars, but Damn we should’ve taken the train! Two hours later we made it to the Handlebar in downtown Chi-town, and met up with Nathan Bluestone. I had Ichibod pumpkin beer from New Holland on special and fish tacos. I love fish tacos.
The Armpit of America
The next day was going to be a big one; I planned to ride from Glenn Ellyn to Michigan City, through Chicago, Hammond, and Gary. A friend of Andy’s who had ridden it before emailed us a step-by-step list of GPS directions, including the foreboding words:
“The area he’ll be riding through is probably one of the toughest urban areas in the nation to navigate on a bike. In some areas there is nothing but industry, rail lines, and highway… it’s no man’s land.”
At the end of the trail in Maywood, I checked the GPS directions, and discovered a portion that said “Interstate.” No thanks, I’ll find my own way.
Looking around at my options, a nice old black dude named Tommy on a Diamondback hybrid stopped to say hi. My personal travel repertoire definitely includes asking for advice, if not skill with GPS coordinates.
“You familiar with this area, Tommy?” I ask him.
“Most people that ride, I think, they take Washington. Yeap, you could take Washington. Most people that ride into the city, it takes ’em about thirty-five, forty minutes. Dependin’ on how you ride, acourse.” I thanked him, and asked him if there were any problems with his bicycle I could fix. Apparently not, so I was on my way.
I took Roosevelt, East toward the skyscrapers. First, I saw the nearest ones outlined in the hazy smog of the city. Slowly, block by block, the huge Chicago monoliths became more defined, larger, until I was amongst them, towering over me like gates to utopia. I’ve been to that area before, but doing it on a bike was absolutely, amazingly, different. Pedal Power! My heart was singing as I rolled down to the lake.
The first thing I saw there, with the sailboats’ masts bristling behind, was a sculpture of the globe, maybe six feet in diameter, painted with a guy riding a bike. Serendipity. There were a ton of other globe statues all along the path, all painted in different artistic ways, all adding to my cosmic confidence.
The Chicago Lakeshore Path is beautiful. Lake Michigan is beautiful. I had hoped to buy some postcards somewhere right on the path, but I was instead forced to dash into the Shedd Aquarium gift shop and hurriedly purchase whatever jumped out at me, while my bike and gear were outside, in peril for every second I spent inside. I wonder what it’s like inside the actual aquarium… ah well, I suppose I could’ve found a way to take my time there, but I still had Gary, Indiana to contend with before dark.
Down the Lakeshore a bit, between all the triathletes and big-assed fitness walkers, I met my first other loaded bicycle tourist! “Where you headed?” I ask. He tells me. “Where’s that?” I ask, and he points the way he had just come. Hah! Same as me. That’s how we do it, you dig? Around and back. David Gitride (www.gitride.com) was a man with a schedule. He had six miles to go before lunch, and twenty to go after lunch. Not a terribly strict-minded guy, though; I don’t think loaded bike tourists can afford to be strict with themselves. It was great to talk for a bit, and exchange addresses. He said we need to turn this into a sport. Hmm.
The Lakeshore Path in all its well-kept glory eventually ended, and I navigated South Shore Drive(using those green bike signs and asking one old lady for directions) to Calumet Park, right on the border of IL-IN. The streets had already become less well-maintained, the buildings more run-down. It was only about noon, so there weren’t any crackheads in evidence yet, but I was still a bit worried about the upcoming route into Indiana. I saw a guy backing his fishing boat into the water as I ate lunch, and decided to try for alternative transport. “You wouldn’t want to take me across the water, would you?” I ask, prepared for barter or perhaps even cash for passage. He didn’t want to take me across the water, and actually succeeded in flustering me even more, by pointing across the bay toward the hazy industrial silhouettes of Indiana – Gary was almost farther than I could see, and I still had to take a circuitous route. “Better do it in the daytime!” he let me know. Yeah, thanks.
I didn’t fret too much though. I finished my lunch while poring over my maps. I still had GPS directions from there to Michigan City, but again I found myself not quite ready to use them. I don’t know if it’s my aversion to technology, or my desire to test my limits, or what, but something about the GPS leaves a bad feeling in my chest. Sorry Anthony, but thanks anyway! I decided to go old-school, using only a Google map, heh. I memorized the route I would try to take, packed up the PB&J, and headed for the park exit and Indiana.
The first thing I did was take a wrong turn. I should add that the signpost for “Calumet Bike Route” was bent almost all the way to the ground and the sign itself mangled by some vandal or auto accident. Really though, in hindsight, I think I sensed I wasn’t taking the right way. Maybe I thought I could “just bear left” and I’d make it to a city street eventually. But no; no city street. Glass-strewn railroad frontage. It led me right into the entrance gate for some humongous industrial park. The buzzer button thing was broken, but then I noticed a security guy in the booth. He wouldn’t let me through his monstrous complex, but he did say there was a gravel road next to the tracks outside his fence. “I’m sure it leads somewhere,” he says, and I was glad to not have to backtrack. Over some tracks and – oh, shit.
No man’s land. On one side, rusty portions and discarded parts of whole trains, left in disuse, a concrete wall behind. On the lake side: oh no, it wasn’t the lake… industrial fences, with smokestacks rising beyond. And between, the tracks, with gravel and sand that was at times unrideable, forcing me to walk on one track, pushing my loaded rig like a muler with a stubborn ass. I passed a lakefront casino, complete with airport shuttle-buses, valets, and rich people taking an afternoon jog; all glimpsed through the twelve foot fence of course. A world apart.
After passing various interesting debris, like an empty cigarette pack with some copper scrubbie sticking out of it, and somewhere in there, the state line, I saw my first Indianans! I went around the old guy peering confusedly at the electrical box, and approached the opening in the city-side fence, where a very loud construction site was under way. Five or six construction workers in orange vests all turned to look at me in surprise. I didn’t have to shout. I just signalled, asking if it was okay if I just zipped through – I could see the streets of Hammond just across the broken concrete of the de’struction area. At first I received a “no, no” hand signal, but then the big one yelled over the noise of the machines, “I guess you’re already over there, you might as well come through.” Okay, good, so I start to harangue my load onto the treacherous hardpack, when one of the construction workers, the short one, yells “Five dollars!?” as if to tax me, and pulls a lockblade from somewhere, brandishing it threateningly!
I stopped in my tracks. His knife looked just like mine, there’s a knife-fight right here in my pocket… then my racing thoughts went to the shiv taped to my bike, but no… no, the look on his face didn’t scare me… he can’t be serious. After a tense moment, the big one gives me the “come ahead” hand sign, and I breathe a sigh of relief. “No money” I yell as I go by them, and passed the gauntlet, depositing myself squarely into urban Indiana.
The first person I saw in Hammond was a bent old man with a cane, dressed in a navy blue workman’s uniform. Too old to work, but still headed for the factory. The second was a guy with a prosthetic arm and hook manipulator; perhaps he had had a little too much work in Indiana. From there it was more security fences and industry, cargo trucks and smog. I quickly found the road I wanted, and though it was bumpy from (not-so-)frequent repairs, it was rideable.
Past the airport then, trekking on and on through the dirty armpit of industry. As I entered Gary I tried to remember not to smile. People who’ve lived hard lives, people who make others’ lives harder, they don’t appreciate pleasantness from strangers.
The place was shabby. Broken streets and boarded-up buildings, security bars over storefronts, 40 oz. bottles left right on the curb, aged graffiti in conspicuous places. Sort of surreal in the daytime; I rode through wondering just how scared I’d be if the sun weren’t around. Hopefully I won’t have to figure that one out, but my guess is: not scared enough.
I had to stop somewhere in Gary for water; I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it all the way to Michigan City, and if I were going to camp, I’d need resupply on the H2O. So about halfway through town, when the dollar menu called to me from beneath the Golden Arches, I said, Why not. It’s been good calories before. No, sorry, it’s been lots of calories before.
Inside, I was out of place. As usual, but more so, being the only caucasian in the place. The effeminate guy at the counter said he’d have to ask his manager if they’d fill me up. I told him I’d buy something, I’m not just a bum! I bought a double cheese for $1.06 in coins and pounded it while the old black guy across from me, dressed in another navy blue workman’s uniform, laughed into his coffee at some hilarious and enduring private joke. He never stopped laughing.
I had to ask twice, but they did fill up my three waterbottles, with ice even!
“You’re the man!” I tell the manager.
“I try to be.”
Outside, laying in the grass, I noticed the old cackler come out and head for some indeterminable destination across the parking lot. I decided to ask,
“Hows it goin’?”
“Eh?” He looks towards me, realizes someone is talking to him.
“Hows it goin’?” I repeat.
He didn’t answer, instead offering, “Interest you in some roly-polies today? Some reefer?”
I wasn’t quite sure I had heard him right, since he didn’t look like any drug dealer I know. I said “No thanks” just to be sure; then some other guy that was on his way into Mickey D’s, and had overheard our exchange, turns to me and gives me the thumbs up, as if to say, “Good job! Say no to drugs!” A daytime dip into Gary drug culture; and I was just stopping at the fast food joint. Wow.
My next stop was the local gas station, right on the edge of town, to fill up the 3 liter water bladder and the bottle I’d drank since that cheeseburger. The place was hoppin’, with gangster rap coming out of several cars, and straight Gs rolling in and out: baggie pants, high tops and timberlands, sports apparel, baseball caps, big rolls of cash. I leaned my bike up just outside the clear glass doors and grabbed what I needed. Criminals all around me, I was sure, but I felt aight about leaving my gear out there. I didn’t see any crackheads, just gang bangers, and real gangsters don’t just steal a bike or a bag from outside a gas station.
While I filled up on water at the sink in the corner, the line at the checkout grew, so by the time I turned to go, I faced a whole crowd of homeboys, blocking my view of the bike. They stepped aside for me, that’s right; and revealed in their midst a wiry little white guy who looked way more scared than I felt. I nodded at him.
Outside I took some minutes resecuring things, and meanwhile some guy behind me was rapping along with a chorus I wasn’t familiar with while he filled up on gas. “Talk to ’em, talk to ’em…” I must have said “Whatsup” or “Whats happenin'” to at least five players on their way in and out as I got ready to ride. Much respect.
As I turned the rig about and started rollin’, my head was bobbing to the bass-heavy hip hop beats, and the G that was rapping the “Talk to ’em” song saw me jammin’, and pointed at me, laughing and yelling, “Yeheah! Now there’s my man! He likes it!” And I finally smiled at somebody in Gary, Indiana.
The Dunes Highway after that was fine, no problems. I made it to the West Beach of Indiana Dunes National Park by 3:00 pm, and decided to take a swim. Sitting there afterwards in my boxer shorts, shades, and armband, drying in the sun and breeze, I really felt like I could conquer the world. I had successfully navigated South Chicago and Gary, some of the most notorious places in the Midwest, by my wits alone, and come through unscathed. I had made more mileage than any day so far, and was only a few miles from a family reunion(mom’s side) at some friends’ vacation home on the beach in Michigan City. There’s nothing like loaded bike touring; maximally gratifying.
That afternoon I rode past another stretch of the National Park, and suddenly it gave way to more damned industry on the lakefront. It just pisses me off to see such monstrosity, right in the middle of the park; huge steel factories and lake-dumping machines. Spitting disgustedly on the road just didn’t satisfy my rebellious feelings, so when I got to the other side of industry-blasted-land, to the part of the National Park with camping, I decided to backtrack a bit and ditch-camp on corporate land. A bit of dissention that my compassion would allow. It actually was quite green that close to the park, and nicely secluded. I spent the rest of the afternoon adding sticks to the fire and writing.
The next morning I was up and out, on a nice empty bike path that led right to the city, and pulling up Turner Court to the reunion by 12:30 in the afternoon. Passing by the landmarks and streets on my directions to the place, my elation grew and grew. “There’s the zoo she mentioned! (Hey, is that zoo free?) Oh man, there’s the cross-street, I’m almost there! Yes! This is the address…!”
And so I arrived, happy and hungry, sun-drenched and sweaty. I’ve been here a few days now, vacationing with family and going over all the details I skipped before I left Madison. I get a whole screened-in porch to myself, so I’m still sleeping outside, but I can spread my stuff out to all corners of my little domain. A comprehensive equipment list with photos will be forthcoming before I leave for the east coast, for all who love the gear. I know I do.
As for my plans from here, I think I’ll shoot for Norfolk, VA next, and the ships that dock there, though it is a priority for me to stay south of the winter. I don’t know, maybe I’ll go to New Orleans or Atlanta instead. I’ll at least start heading southeast. Anyone have a good lead on free or working passage across the Atlantic?
I’d like to thank you for reading this; I know it’s long. But believe me, I could’ve made it longer. So many tiny details, and only so much downtime. This is a bike tour! =)
If anyone has any questions, or would like to leave a comment or send me an email, please do!!! I love the comments, they’re like additions to the story. Your support makes me bolder! And make no mistake, I’ll need all the boldness I can get. Emails are always greatly appreciated as well, when I roll into a town and check after a week on the road. So keep ’em coming, and thanks!
If you’d rather give support with a monetary donation, please send a check made out to:
417 S. Dickinson St.
Madison, WI 53703 USA
She’s my mother, and will see that it gets into my account. You could also send her hardcopy letters, which I adore, and she’ll try to get them to me.
Thank you to everyone, my god there are many of you that deserve it; and apologies to anyone I missed in any way. Please let me know of any discrepancies that are noticed, and advice is always welcome. I love you all!
-Charles Ilsley Brigham IV
Wisconsin State Journal Article: