Ever been so tired of the city traffic, city people, city parking and city problems that you just wanted to turn west on Ogden Avenue, say, and keep going away from Chicago until you reached the Mississippi River?
Well I did just that over the weekend, and I can tell you what you’d see—and how you’d feel when you got back.
For Labor Day, my in-laws took a cabin at a state park in remote southeastern Iowa. Hoping to ride my motorcycle there and meet my family, I looked up the directions, and specified, “no highways.” Google Maps returned: From my Ukrainian Village home, head south on Western Ave., take a right on Ogden Ave., and ride for 350 miles, 240 of them in Illinois.
That sounded good to me.
But I was having my doubts, growling in the 5:30 a.m. blackness behind a stinking Downers Grove garbage truck. As the sky turned to dark blue, the Ogden Ave. signs were mixed with signs for U.S. Rt. 34 West. U.S. 34 takes you to the Mississippi, through Iowa and Nebraska and, if you’re that fed up with Chicago, to Granby, Colo. First, though, you have to get through Chicago mega-suburbs Lisle, Naperville and Aurora.
Urban sprawl turns into rural road in Oswego—you feel it. And you could probably get a good country breakfast at Plano, Sandwich or Somanauk, but I didn’t take any chances. I waited until I hit Mendota, about 100 miles west.
I had waited long enough. Having been hurtling face-first through the wind for a couple hours, I walked into Ziggies Family Room Restaurant in a zombie state familiar to me, from lots of back-road rides through America and Canada (my Triumph passed 20,000 miles on this trip). I tried to appear as a normal human being despite the intense introversion that two hours of engine meditation creates. Tried to appear as a normal American through the self-protective shell you build to keep Chicago out. Tried not to rub my helmet-itchy scalp while ordering my eggs.
Six old guys sat at the next table over, theorizing about why a tractor axel had broken one day and not another day, talking about a record flathead catch (81 lbs., and the guy threw it back!) and debating with some humor and at great length the proper size of a regulation corn dog, thus to determine what constitutes a “jumbo corn dog,” being advertised on the Ziggies menu.
The waitress finally gave in to her curiosity about the spaced-out drifter at the counter, and she asked me where I’d come from. When I said Chicago, she said her sister had dated a fellow in Chicago once.
“Chicago’s not so bad,” she said, provided you learn a few tricks about city life. For instance, she learned the hard way never to give homeless people money. Because if you give money to one, they’ll gather around you by the dozens.
“Give them toothpaste or soap,” she said. “Anything but money!”
The next stretch is farm fields punctuated by happy speed reductions into towns so small—Dover, Princeton, Wyanet, Sheffield, Neponset—that when you hit Kewaunee (pop. 12,676), it feels like a metropolis, and you’re glad to back out to the country, and to Galva (pop. 2,758) and then Altona (pop. 531) and Oneida (pop. 700).
I stopped and listened to the Altona Tigers marching band, rehearsing out of their uniforms; they didn’t sound good, but they sounded wonderful. I think it was also in Altona that I took a photo of a Lutheran church sign, “Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want!”
Soon my worries came true when the intimate two-laner became an impersonal four-lane superhighway at Galesburg.
That highway lasts for many miles west of Galesburg, and takes a lot of the charm out of the ride. What’s the hurry to get to Monmouth? By the time I hit Biggsville, my mind was on Iowa, where I would have to escape U.S. 34 to find smaller roads. The river crossing from Gulf Port, Ill., to Burlington, Iowa, was uneventful.
In tomorrow's conclusion, we return to Chicago on the same road, transformed by a change of direction. —ed.