Could you live in rural America? It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves on several occasions over the last few weeks. Remote, few facilities, little in the form of entertainment, it seems there are few positives to recommend it. But spend more time with the people who live in ‘Smallville’ and you begin to get an understanding of the appeal.
The sense of community is strong, often bonded by the numerous churches, predominantly Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist. In some small towns there can be as many as ten churches drawing in congregations from the large rural hinterland. The other great meeting place is the local cafe or diner. Open from 7am, serving hot coffee and cooked breakfasts, in will come a succession of locals who all know each other. Over hash browns, biscuits and eggs the humour is warm and friendly as they catch up on each other’s news before heading off to work. Or, if retired, the groups will sit longer, chatting away the morning.
There is genuine community spirit, but it’s not at the exclusion of others. When outsiders such as TransAmerican cyclists walk into the room they are genuinely interested in what you are doing – and keen to hear about the world beyond. Some (the young) may dream of city life, but for many the advantages of country life – the space, surrounding countryside, wildlife and neighbourliness far outweigh the bright lights. And that sense of community is crucial – because at times many of these seemingly tranquil places are at the centre of extreme weather events – as we were to find out.
The day began with much gentler cycling, through Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, laced with some beautiful lakes with evocative names like ‘Little Grassy Lake’ and ‘Devil’s Kitchen”. Found a large mean-looking turtle in the road which we are pretty sure is an American Snapper. If so they can be pretty aggressive with their armoured tail, so we kept our distance.
We are riding alone again as Rudy and Heidi and Jonathan and Jerry are heading into Carbondale for bike repairs (there are several bike shops there) but with both the Kona and Surly performing brilliantly we carried on to the outskirts of Murphysborough.
At this point on the route you’ve a choice of staying in the hills or riding to the Mississippi and cycling along the top of the levee. So hilly or dead flat? An easy choice, which after a few lumps and bumps landed us in a landscape which could have been the East Anglian fens. What a contrast – flat open farmland stretching on for miles, small lakes frequented by white egrets and the occasional grain silo. We couldn’t believe our luck.
And it got better as we rode into Neunert, a tiny community which had a decent bar, aptly named “Bottoms Up”! It being another extremely hot day we quickly obliged and necked two beers each before cycling up to the local church to sit under a tree and feast on peanut butter and jelly sarnies. We could quite happily have fallen asleep on the grass but soon found ourselves being taken on a guided tour of the Christ Lutheran Church.
Turns out there’s much more to Neunert than meets the eye. It’s hard to believe with the weather we’ve been enjoying but this is ‘Tornado Alley’ and a few years back the steeple was ripped off. In the same storm the brick built school gym next door was torn apart – fifteen minutes earlier it had been full of children. The town’s proximity to the Mississippi meant a few decades back the entire town had been flooded, including the church, and had to be evacuated. Makes you realise what extremes and hardships some of these communities endure.
Got slightly lost in the ‘flatlands’ but eventually found ourselves topping the levee which led to a great view of the Mighty Mississippi. We’ve still got a long way to go until the Pacific, but this felt like a significant breakthrough and we stood watching its fast flowing waters separating the States of Illinois and Missouri. It’s a huge body of water, quite breathtaking and easy to see why it’s brooding presence and destructive power has played such a major role in the America story. We cycled on along the levee to views of huge coal yards supplied by the massive trains we’ve been seeing for several weeks now. But great to see how nature can always find a way to adapt, such as the Martins using the rail bridges to establish nesting sites.
Then followed a great evening ride from Cora to Chester – a fast and quiet road with great views of the river sparkling to our left accompanied by the rumbling sound track of the coal trains. Had trouble finding our accommodation for the night, but as so often happened a local, assuming we were lost, came to our rescue. On this occasion we soon found ourselves following a huge black Tonka toy of a pick-up as the driver led us to ‘The Shack’ a hostel for passing cyclists.
‘Shack’ is an apt description – nine wooden bunks and two mattresses in what can only be described as a large shed. The location is rather odd too – affiliated to a large bar and restaurant complex on the outskirts of town with a very basic shower room across the car-park. A fairground being set up for the weekend and electricity sub station completed the scene.
In the bar we met two other cyclists also enjoying shack-life – Ian, 21, from Columbus Ohio cycling from home to the Pacific and Steve, nearer to our age, riding from his home in Minnesota to Yorktown.
Surprisingly I enjoyed my most comfortable nights sleep yet, so a wooden plank bed it is from now on!
Miles since First Landing: 1286.57
Here is the full Garmin report: