I said last week that I’d report on what I saw and heard on a motorcycle ramble to Peoria, Illinois over the weekend.
I’m sure I lean too hard on these backroad rides to give me—and you, my predominantly city-dwelling reader—a sense of the mood in the country we fly over in airplanes or blast through, on interstates.
But I’m so often surprised by what I see on these trips, and how I feel!
I think the first time I got freaked out in my own country was 2009, when my pal Tommy and I were riding through Western Pennsylvania on the way back from a long motorcycle sortie to Nova Scotia. We pulled into a gas station in Warren, and the attendant asked where we were from. “I like Cleveland,” he told Tom approvingly, “because it reminds me of Western P.A.”
“But I don’t like Chicago,” he added, glowering at me.
“BHO!” he said.
I looked at him blankly.
“Barack Hussein Obama, the President!”
At the bar at the Holiday Inn that he directed us to, I sat next to a middle-aged guy who was sitting by himself, nursing his drink and idly doodling on his USA Today. He left the paper on the bar.
During the presidential campaign the previous year, Obama had said, “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Apparently this did not go over well in Western Pennsylvania. And of course we’re 12 years on—through the Obama and Trump administrations, and nothing has changed about any of the above, in Western P.A. or anywhere else in rural America.
Before that, I remember country-road rambles that were entirely pleasant, at least for a white guy with an adventurous spirit. Once a few miles south of DeKalb, Ill., I broke down in my old International Harvester Scout and a farmer named Lester picked me up and took me into town and towed my truck to his neighbor, a mechanic. Another time, the Scout overheated and rolled to a halt in front of a humble house east of Morris, where the whole family was home in the middle of the day. The mother had just been laid off from the local refinery, and the father and the kids were in kind of a devastated daze. They filled our radiator back up, and seemed glad for the distraction, and a problem they could solve.
These days, I’m careful which country roadhouses I stop at. I was once so disturbed by a drunken, mean Star Wars bar scene on a Sunday evening stop in Kendallville, Indiana, that rather than stop for the night, I rode half the night back to Chicago. I don’t stay at roadside motels anymore, because it seems like a good way to get robbed by meth heads and infested with bedbugs in one sitting. I don’t know whether I’m being paranoid now or was being reckless then, but it is a different feeling than it was 15 or 20 years ago.
I had no reason to expect my backroad ride from Chicago to Peoria last weekend (for an annual golf weekend there) was going to be any less anti-nostalgic, as a Chicago pal recently drove across Pennsylvania and found the place inundated with Trump signs and flags on trucks, and a sense of menace. And I recently told you about my favorite roadhouse in Iowa going all the way bad.
So I did not ride off last week looking hopefully for evidence that maybe the fever had broken a bit, even in somewhat moderate mid-state Illinois.
As I sat in hot traffic behind a pickup truck whose bumper stickers identified the driver as an ex-Marine and an Iraq veteran, the driver’s side door opened. “Need some water?” the guy asked, holding a big bottle out. Startled, I told him no, but thanks a lot! And then realized how dehydrated I actually was, and rode to the next gas station to get a bottle.
In a tavern in LaSalle on a Friday afternoon, the charismatic young bartender asked me about my bike and tried to tease me into a session of happy yakking with the regulars. I was in too much of a hurry to get down the Illinois River before the sun set and the deer began to move. Her friendliness was matched by a dozen proprietors of bars and golf courses from Channahon to Braidwood, from Bartonville to Pekin and Metamora (where there’s a courthouse where Abraham Lincoln handled 70 cases between 1845 and 1858).
And I saw not a single Trump flag or sign on the whole ride. Which is only appropriate, since like Jefferson Davis, he’s currently out of power. Still, appropriate is an improvement.
And I felt more confident, less watched, walking into local joints, than I have in years. Is that because my team is in office and I feel somehow more protected? Or is the mood different?
In any case, I saw what looked like a lightening of things. I’m sure this is an unreliable report, but then so is the view you see through your TV, as I was sternly reminded in the only political conversation I got into over the whole weekend—with one of my own pals, from Chicago.
This, I know I saw: