Northbound in Mid-October—Part Two
North to Corn and Tornado Country
Ken and I shared breakfast at a Waffle House at the exit I would take leaving town, so we said our goodbyes there, with Ken heading back to the last day of the festival to help friends tear down their booth in the swap meet area, while I would be striking out north and a little west, aiming, roughly, for western Kentucky.
I only took the Interstate north to get out of the Birmingham area, then once clear of the city, I headed northwest on smaller highways. The rain that had made a mess at the Barber Vintage Festival the week before was long gone, and I had sun and benign fluffy white clouds overhead and temperatures a few degrees lower than the inferno that it had been at the festival. At a stop, I looked into my top box for something, only to discover I had left all my food and cooking tools in Ken’s kitchen. Gone were my stove, my pots and cup, all my breakfast bars, and a bag of cacao, which I had switched to drinking instead of coffee a few months before the trip. I’d have to pay for cooked meals for the rest of the trip. I was too far out to make a return to Birmingham worth the journey to retrieve it all. I called Ken and asked him to box it all up and mail it home for me, then got back on the road. Soon, about 130 miles out from Ken’s, I crossed into Tennessee, then slipped along minor highways between Memphis and Nashville toward western Kentucky.
As I rolled up and down the green hills, I watched for any signs of fall, some change of color, but everything was cloaked in mid-summer green. Autumn had not arrived in Tennessee or Kentucky.
As the day progressed into afternoon, I noticed that the sun was lower earlier than I would have expected, but then recalled the latitude I was at and remembered how short the days had been when I'd lived in the North. I stopped and bought water and a sub and threw both in the top box. Checking the area on my phone, I found a campsite west of Paducah that would be close to an easy crossing into Illinois over the Ohio River the next morning. I didn’t look at any details of the campground and hoped it was not an RV-only kind of “campground.” I just plugged its address into the GPS and hoped I would make it there before dark. I couldn’t be picky that late in the afternoon.
The ride from that moment was a race against a setting sun, guessing, based on the GPS’s arrival time, how dark it would be when I'd arrive. As I raced along, I was constantly glancing at the dropping sun and estimating how long until it would disappear behind the trees. Every speed zone worried me as the sun sank ever lower. Finally, it was below the horizon, but still the landscape was illuminated by the lingering light of the sky overhead. I pulled into the campground, pleasantly surprised that they did have tent space and the price was a reasonable fifteen dollars—sold.
I’d made it in before darkness, but setting up camp was done in the dark. Usually, that was a fast process, but this time it was a struggle in the night, made more difficult when the tent pole segments refused to go together. Right after my crash into the deer the past April, I had checked the camping gear stored on the pillion. Despite a hole ground through the bag holding the poles, the poles themselves looked alright, although some of the metal ends were a bit scraped up. But as I began putting the poles together at the campground that evening, I found that a few of the metal tubes that the fiberglass ends of the adjacent pole segments inserted into had been slightly bent out of round, making it impossible to assemble the poles. I fumbled around in the pannier for my tool roll and found some neddle-nose pliers that I used to reshape the ferrules until the poles would slip in and assembly could continue. The poles, the darkness, and the long time since I had gone through this setup routine made that night a challenge, but eventually, all was set up and I was sound asleep on top of my sleeping bag in a still and warm night.
The following morning arrived with a fierce wind out of the south. After a shower, I returned from the bath house to find the tent blown onto its side, despite the weight of all my gear being inside it. The wind complicated breaking camp, with anything loose threatening to fly away toward the Ohio River.
The bike finally packed, I left, but only a quarter mile away I stopped for a hearty breakfast before getting on the adjacent Interstate to cross the Ohio into extreme southern Illinois.
The wind blew fiercely all day, and often as I rode downwind, directly north, I watched the instant mileage indicator blinking at me from the instruments go up from 58 mpg to over 80, and even over 90 occasionally. When I fueled up, apparently the top range the gauge could show was only 240 miles, and it would stay at that number for thirty miles or more before slowly registering any less range. With a range lose to 300 miles, it looked like one fill up per day would be all that would be needed for most of the trip.
The day before, while cooler than it had been in Birmingham, had still been quite hot, but today, Monday, the temperature stayed in the low-70s Fahrenheit, only dipping into the upper-60s as showers passed. A man at the diner that morning had told me that it was supposed to rain, but that it would pass quickly. Rain was not a worry for me. My gear, which was new, replacing my damaged set from the crash, was truly waterproof, so when rain appeared I’d just zip up the neck and wrists and keep on riding, knowing I’d stay dry. The rain that morning, indeed, came and went quickly, leaving a bright sun shining through scattered, small, fluffy white clouds.
It was obvious that corn was king in Illinois, and there were still some fields standing uncut. As I rode further north through central Illinois more fields had been cut, and they revealed what they would usually hide: oil pumps pecking Mother Earth to draw out the liquid resins left eons ago by dinosaurs and other ancient life. I was surprised. I’d never known Illinois was an “oil state.”
The wind was unrelenting all day, but the temperature was perfect and the skies brilliant…until about five o’clock, when my mind turned to picking up some portable food and a finding a place to camp. The skies ahead and on my right stayed beautiful, but to the west a bank of darkness had appeared and was closing—quickly. I tried to calculate how much time I had to find food and a campground, and still get camp set up before the approaching downpour.
Time passed with no sign of a place to get a sandwich for later as the wall of black clouds got closer. I looked hopefully ahead at the clear weather in the east when the road veered that way, then would despair as the road veered back to a little west of north and the darkness was there again, and closer. I thought, though, that if I could just get a camp set up before the rain arrived, I’d be alright. But as teh afternoon waned and I had found neither food nor a campground, I knew my time was running out.
I decided to try to find a motel to avoid having to pitch camp in a gale of wind along with that rain coming my way. Luckily, I found a place with a McDonalds next door; at least I could stay dry and not go to bed hungry.
I went inside to register, and the friendly clerk, knowing what kind of weather was coming, offered to let me keep my bike parked by the lobby door, where I could still see it from my room but where there would be a roof over it. As I returned to the bike from the motel desk to move and unload the Tiger, the storm had arrived, and buckets of rain were falling sideways, driven by the wind, now from the west. The simple task of unloading the bike had me completely soaked, even though it was parked under the entrance drive-through overhang. After transferring everything to my room via an inside corridor, a quick trot down a sidewalk flowing like a creek to McDonalds was all I could manage, although there were better options for dinner all around, but which were all further away.
Back in the room, I was feeling a bit of a wimp for bailing on camping just because of some rain, until I turned the television on and saw the local channels pre-empting network feeds with emergency weather warnings, with multiple tornados on the ground and directly in the path I would have been had I not stopped at the motel. I’d made a good call, even if it cost me more of my over-stressed budget.