Poems. Philosophy. Campfire songs and scary stories. This is my open notebook. The journal of a man with a flaming heart. When it burns you learn. ~Michael Fox
September 27th, 2013 – A worried mother came to me in my dreams. Early to rise, I drink some water and pull my tent down. Ed walks over and says, “Morning, you heading out?”
“Yeah, Ed. I’ll be leaving here shortly. Did you sleep well?”
“As well as I can, all things considering. I wanted to catch you before you left and tell you thanks. Thanks for sharing your story with us. It isn’t easy around here and I think you brought some inspiration. Bless your heart, Michael.”
“Thanks Ed. I won’t be forgetting Thebes anytime soon. Good luck with your surgery and stay active. Wish the guys my best.”
I took a left out of the driveway and Ed says, “Ain’t that the wrong way?
“No. I’m going to Cape Girardeau and heading south from there.” I give a wave in leaving. Cape is almost 12 miles of backtracking and I’ll have to cross the river but it’s a big enough city to have what I need to stock my supplies. Most importantly I need to look into getting the phone repaired. My parents deserve a call. I’ve seen enough of the 3 and my instinct says to avoid Cairo, even if that means biking for an hour in the opposite direction.
In Cape I roll by the Southeast Missouri State University and stop for breakfast. I think this is where the film students from the Devil’s Backbone study. It’s a shame that I haven’t given or received contact information with anyone in the last few days, besides Grunt that is. I’m in a movie that I may never see. Taking out the watermelon and a plastic bag, I cut it in half, saving the rest for later. This is a top shelf piece of fruit and I clean the entire rind with a spoon while I look at the map of Missouri. The river from Cape Girardeau down to the city of New Madrid bends in the shape of a bow and Interstate 55 is the string, running directly south and connecting the two river towns. This bend is a microcosm of the bend that takes place between St. Louis and Memphis. South of Cairo will mark the river’s farthest course East. According to my calculations, New Madrid is about 70 miles south of me now, straight shot on the freeway. Interstate 55 is actually a straight shot that veers slightly west along the river all the way to Memphis.
I have no idea what’s going on in the world. I’ve went a half month without logging into Facebook or making a phone call. I haven’t listened to music, watched a television or read the newspaper. Until my cell phone stopped working, I used it almost exclusively for its GPS and weather information. When on a wifi connection, the MyRadar application gives me up to date radar readings and information on weather conditions. The GPS works without a wifi connection! I can zoom in on the little blue dot at any given time to see where I am on the map, that is when my phone is working. It’s time to reach out to family and friends. The last half of the trip I’d like to be more social and keep in touch with home as well as the folks I meet on the road. So this is the matter at hand.. Money is low and I could sell my phone but don’t think I’d get much. The screen hasn’t come on in days and has a small crack in the bottom right hand corner. I bought the original Iphone 5 over a year ago right when it came out. It has an aluminum back rather than glass so it’s lasted without shattering unlike the 4. It uses a new charging chord that isn’t compatible with earlier apple products. The tiny lightening dock on my phone seems to have failed. It won’t recognize the chord. Right before it stopped working completely, I was able to charge by placing weight on the connection, which makes me think the receptors are faulty or the dock itself is loose. Finding an ATT in Cape, bringing the phone in, I explain the situation, asking if they’ll help me troubleshoot the problem.
“The charging dock on the 5 has been a common issue,” says Mr. Salesman before asking, “Do you have insurance?”
“No. I don’t. I’m passing through on a bicycle tour and the phone quit working, unable to charge. I’m hoping you guys can take a look at it and help me fix it before I continue south.”
Without even looking at the phone he says, “The new dock will cost almost $100 and unfortunately we have a three day wait period on all in store repairs,” says the phone mongler.
“$100?! I bet the phone is barely worth twice that if I tried to sell it. Alright, thanks,” I say to the salesman, although in leaving I don’t feel thankful; more snubbed than anything. I stop at McDonald’s for a coffee and plug my computer in. I remember the old Nintendo game cartridges, sadly the Atari ones as well; sometimes the games would stop working, you’d have to blow into the cartridge to knock the dust out after a while. I don’t see anything inside the receptor on the phone but I blow into the dock. I get a head rush and a memory of when I was young, my mother and I used to go to the fabric store together. I’d get to pick out the hottest threads. Neon colors, animal prints, lightning bolts…whatever I wanted. She’d measure, cut, sew…boom…knock-off Zubaz. I’d rock those real comfortable like and play Atari with my friends on a tube that weighed more than all of us combined. I remember the Christmas when I opened up the original Nintendo Entertainment System. It came with Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. My father liked to play just as much as Aimee and I. Television and advertising were really joining forces at this point. MTV came and blew minds! That was back when they actually played music videos. We are so influenced by the media, the images of what’s current, and the faces that represent these products. To watch the news or access a website means being bombarded with commercials and advertisements representing someone’s version of the truth. I wish we questioned it more. What’s perceived as truly beautiful is all too often ugly beneath the surface and what’s considered cool changes so fast that it becomes a competition to keep up with the new shoes, or the new smart phones, or the new cars. Consumerism made the game.
Are we really winning? I had the iPhone 5 before anyone I knew. It separated me from the pack. The ego loves that. Separation is not winning though. It’s insane to me that our technology is smart enough (stupid enough) to design products that will break down or become obsolete within a predetermined timeframe, encouraging new production and further consumerism. We buy it too, stratifying the classes and fueling the flames of our egos.
I bent off a piece of wire from my notebook to fish around inside the tiny hole. The most miniscule dust ball comes out stuck to the end of the wire. That would be enough to block the charger’s connection. Sure enough, the phone starts to receive power when plugged in. I wonder how many unknowing customers will have their phone’s charger dock ‘replaced,’ or rather cleaned for the stiff price of $100 because of a simple dust and lint build up, invisible to the naked eye. I imagine shady mechanics and unknowing old women negotiating prices for the parts and labor on vehicles that were never made to last. It could be a deeper disappointment in myself for not solving the problem earlier? Maybe it’s that I really didn’t care much? But all this has me disgusted in the thought of doing any business today and rather than stop to look at a spare tire and possibly replacement tires for the trailer, I pass the bike shop and keep going south.
Interstate 55 has a shoulder the size of a freeway lane and I’m out there. This is the flattest straightest road I’ve been on. Trucks fly by and suck me into a draft helping to put distance between myself and Cape. The freeway makes for a fast ride besides having to swerve around chunks of tire, dead animals, and hundreds of bungee cords. You know the cheap black ones with a hook on each end? Apparently they’re the worst product ever manufactured. They litter the ditch and shoulder in every combination of malfunction imaginable. If you’re so concerned about your belongings blowing off in the wind then don’t be tricked by the cheapness of a phony bologna bungee strap.
In Sikeston I stop off for a melon break. It’s just another town with a strip mall and all that. Mom and Dad are on my mind and I look forward to speaking with them tonight. Calling home will be a weight off my shoulders. I picture it going well. This trip has turned into a mission of sorts and I believe in what I’m doing so passionately that I know my folks will be supportive even though they may not understand. With the crazy history of stunts I’ve pulled, this shouldn’t be Earth shattering news. I’ll call them from New Madrid; ironically a land rich in Earth shattering Mississippi River history. It isn’t far now as I continue down 55 straight south.
This little town I’m approaching experienced 2,000 earthquakes in a five month period, starting on December 16th 1811. Although there were no seismographs in North America at the time and expert conclusions greatly vary on the magnitudes of the 3 strongest quakes: the December 16th, January 23rd, and February 7th earthquakes are believed to have met or exceeded a level 8 on the present day Richter scale! Shockwaves rattled windows in Montreal over 1,000 miles away. Church bells rang in Boston, Massachusetts and even President Madison felt tremors in the White House. Chimneys toppled to the ground in Cincinnati, Ohio. Masonry worked seemed to be the most affected. Many chimneys fell, one of which contained the body of Slave George. The nephews of Thomas Jefferson; Lilburn and Isham Lewis, also related to Captain Meriwether, were tried and convicted for the murder of Slave George during the Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812. The guilty parties murdered a slave with an axe in front of witnesses. They planned to burn the body and reportedly had started that fire when the first earthquake struck. The brothers stuffed Slave George’s body inside of a chimney that would later collapse in further tremors, exposing the evidence and provoking the investigation that would lead to their trials and convictions.
The Great Comet of 1811 burned at its brightest during the earthquakes. Some attribute it’s coming to the calamities. It was last seen during the reign of King Ramses II. Some also attribute the coming of the steamboat to the disasters. Imagine right then, seeing the greatest ship you’ve ever seen, riding the river backwards. The New Orleans was the very first steamboat to sail the Mississippi River; Piloted by Caption Jefferson, under the sky of Tecumseh’s Comet, they came straight into the epicenter. Thousands of trees were floating in the river, islands sank, waterfalls broke through into existence and the channel was modified. It was a miracle they made it into present day Cairo and survived. The uplift of land downstream created a fluvial tsunami that sent a wave upriver, even pushing boats in the opposite course, giving the impression that the current flowed backwards for some time. The comet, the earthquake and the fire boat must have all seemed like the end of the world to this sparsely populated area’s native civilization.
As I pull into New Madrid, which was the epicenter of the cities destroyed, I think about the flooding that happened here. The river flowed over its banks and created 10 new lakes. One of these lakes has a legendary story of creation. During the earthquakes, the flooding river came over its banks, swallowing Chief Reelfoot and the Chickasaw people, putting their village beneath a new lake that came to be named after the Chief. Native legend says Chief Reelfoot fell in love with a Choctaw Princess. Her father wouldn’t allow for their marriage and the Great Spirit warned the Chief not to kidnap the maiden or else his village and its people would be destroyed. Reelfoot still captured his wife to be, against all advice and during the wedding ceremony, The Great Spirit stamped his foot causing the earthquake. The river came and destroyed the village and everyone in it as the water filled the footprint of God. This is the legend of Reelfoot Lake’s creation.
Off the 55 exit sits a Flying J’s and I swoop down. These truck stop/travel centers are common in the Bootheal of Missouri. Directly south of here and across the river in the enclave of Kentucky. The land fits like the male end of a puzzle piece into Missouri and Tennessee with the border being the Mississippi’s oxbow meander. The river wraps up, around and back down this part of Kentucky looking like a thumb, straight up in approval. There will come a day when the river will cut off that thumb. The land will recede and the current will join itself, changing the flow of the river and making the Kentucky enclave more of a Missouri thing.
I’m nervous as I pick up the payphone and dial the numbers from the back of this old South Lake Tahoe calling card I found in my wallet. The phone rings until the familiar voice of my mother is on the other end.
She says, “Hello.”
“I was just thinking about you. We haven’t talked for over two weeks. What’s going on with you? What is this number you’re calling on?
“I’m calling from a pay phone in New Madrid, Missouri about 150 miles north of Memphis. I’ve been riding bicycle along the Mississippi river, camping and writing a book. I’ll follow the river all the way to New Orleans,” there’s a silence on the line and I ask her, “Are you shocked?”
“I can’t say that I’m really that surprised. You’ve always done crazy things and you are my gypsy son,” she likes to call me that and it’s a term of endearment from her. She says, “What happened at the Hyatt?”
“The Hyatt was a horrible temporary job, mom. You know I wasn’t happy there. I quit and took my last paycheck with me, leaving the cities the day after my birthday. I should have called sooner. I’m truly sorry for that. I just didn’t know how to tell you. Jobs like I had at the Hyatt are a dime a dozen and I have the skills to find work anywhere I go.”
“I believe that,” she says, “you need to work though.”
“Right now my work is pedaling this bicycle about 8 hours a day along the Mississippi River, playing music and camping. A story is developing and the characters are real,” I go on to tell her about The River Rats in Thebes and the message I brought them, “to be an author is what I want. There’s only one way to get a story like this and that’s to live it.”
She says, “Do you know how hard it is to become a published author?”
I retort with, “Do you know how hard it is to ride a bicycle as far as I have? We can do anything! I will not live a life of mediocrity.”
“Then you won’t. You’re so deep and intellectual. And you’re a wonderful writer. I’ve loved reading your entries in The Foxfire. Even now as you told me about Thebes I was drawn in, the way you speak is eloquent and also passionate. You’re very talented and I love you. I don’t understand some of the choices you make but you’ll be alright, you’ll make it, I know you will. I can’t guarantee your dad will be so understanding. You’ll have to tell him yourself,” she says.
“I love you mom, you’re the best. It was nice to hear your voice tonight. I’ll check in more often from here on out. Oh also, let me get Grandpa Fox’s number. I’m not sure if I have the right one and I’d like to call him when I’m in Memphis. Maybe he’ll come over from Jackson and spend a day with me.”
She looks up the number and reads it to me. “Mike, your son is on the phone,” she says a loving ‘wish you luck’ goodbye and hands the phone to my dad.
“Hi, Mike.” Angry and anxious, my dad speaks with his breathing and his silence.
“Poppa Fox. I’m calling from New Madrid, Missouri. This is where the earthquakes of 1811-1812 happened. I rode my bicycle all the way here along the Mississippi River with a trailer and my camping gear in tow. It should take another two weeks to reach New Orleans. You wouldn’t believe all the places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. By the time I make it to the delta I’ll have quite the story and fodder for a book. The river is America’s backbone and I’ve learned so much about our country and its people’s history. I think the book could change lives, dad. That’s always been my dream.”
“What are you doing for money,” he asks sternly.
“I live simply. Money hasn’t worried me much really,” brushing off his line of questioning I say, “when I need money, I’ll make it.”
“You can’t just live moment to moment Mike. What will you do when you reach New Orleans?”
“I’ll run to the water and dive in, splashing in celebration. I’ll dance and sing, exploring the city. I may be broke by then but I’ll find a job and work if I have to. I’ll sleep in the tent and bike to work if need be. I’m not even thinking about New Orleans yet. This trip is more about the ride, not so much the destination itself.”
He’s angry at my aloofness saying, “You need a plan Mike. You’re 32 years old now. You need stability,” my parents both would love to see me settle down with a nice lady and have some babies, buy a house and live a normal life, “you need a job.” I understand his line of thinking but I don’t agree.
“I have a job, dad. It’s hard work to push these pedals for 8 hours a day. Not many people are willing to do that job. I’m learning the river in the most intimate of ways. The book I write will give the people a tour of the Mississippi unlike any other written before it. To be an author takes an investment that not many are willing to make,” I explain this to my father hoping we can find some middle ground in the argument.
Angry still but calming down he says, “You and I don’t even think in the same realm. Your thought process is backwards and upside down. We see things so differently, it’s hard for me to comprehend your lifestyle. I think it was completely irresponsible of you to leave without calling. What if something had happened to you? You need to call home and check in, Mike. Let us know where you are.”
“I’ll be checking in more frequently from now on, keeping you guys updated on the trip. Nothing’s changed dad, I still have a hard time with people telling me what I need to do. I procrastinated making this phone call because I didn’t want you and mom to be worrying about me.”
“Well, newsflash; we’re your parents, we’re always going to worry, even when you’re 52. You’ll always be our son. With that being said… your trip sounds like quite the adventure. We’ll talk more the next time you call but just know that we love you very much and we’ll be thinking about you.”
“It’s a great weight from my shoulders to have this phone call behind me. I’ll be in Memphis in two days. I was planning to give Grandpa Fox a call while I’m in Tennessee. I love you dad and I’ll be in touch soon.”
We say goodnight and I hang up the phone feeling relieved. Our conversation went better than I was expecting. I’m thankful to have their support but exhausted physically and emotionally. There was a rest stop on the northbound side of 55 about a mile back. With my lights on, I’m there in no time and setting up the tent on the backside of the rest room. There’s about 10 semi-trucks parked here with sleeping drivers. I read another chapter in Zarathustra, nodding off. Nietzsche says, “I would only believe in a God who could dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, and solemn: it was the spirit of gravity-through him all things fall. Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter. Come, let us kill the spirit of gravity!”
I feel so light! Laughing alone and thankful for the day, I float away to sleep.
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
September 23rd, 2013 – There’s a cold bite in the air as I step from the tent. Fog rolls in thick over the river this morning. I’m hungry! My body misses fruit. I find a can of mandarin oranges and start with that for breakfast. These huge protein bars are delicious when you’re starving. Granted, I am eating nutella by the spoonful with each chomp. The last few days have been in the sixty to eighty mile range and to continue pulling this weight at those distances day in and day out actually seems sustainable as long I stay hydrated and nourished. Water is most important. I drink about twenty ounces first thing in the morning every day. It acts as a bird bath for my stomach and preparers me for breakfast.
A truck pulls into the landing without a boat and slowly drives by as I pack up my camp. I barely make the shape of the driver through his window tint. As I’m wiping beans from my tent’s rain fly, the truck turns around. He rolls down his passenger window and says, ”Good morning. I read your sign there, is that true? You’re really riding from Minnesota to New Orleans on that bike?
“Yeah, true story. I left Minneapolis eleven days ago. Today I’ll be heading down to the Brussels ferry and I’ll ride that across the river into Grafton to pay homage the merging of the Great Rivers. My name is Michael Fox.”
He reaches over and shakes my hand saying, “Michael, I’m Michael too. You see my dogs back here,” he has two labs in the back seat behaving, “I was gonna work them in the river this morning when I saw you here. You wouldn’t mind would you?”
“No not at all, I was just packing up and preparing to leave.”
“Alright, well you be careful out there,” he says with a big tobacco lump in his lip. He spit in a mountain dew bottle as he pulled forward rolling the window up and parking.
It’s always been hard for me to talk to someone when they have a huge chaw in their mouth, constantly adjusting it with their tongue. It’s such a hillbilly habit. I’ve chewed tobacco and always felt guilty and gross doing it. Michael’s dip is unnecessarily large. I can see the bulge in his face from here as he walks the river with a gun and some bird dummies. His dogs are young and they’re excited to be on the water. He fires off a shot, throwing a dummy and yells, “Fetch!”
The dogs swim out, one kind of getting lost and the other retrieving the bird and swimming it back to shore. Now he has to teach the young lab to heal. Sometimes hunters put bird scent on these dummies so the dog can get used to fetching without chewing. The lab plays with the toy at Michael’s feet, “Release, release!” He says repeatedly. As soon as the pup lets go he’s rewarded. Training an animal is easy, it just takes patience. I watched them for a little longer but it’s somewhat disturbing to watch. Michael is a loud force between his barking orders at the dogs and blasting off rounds. My peaceful foggy morning just got really intense and it’s too early for me to be thinking about punishment and reward so I pedal off the river leaving Red’s Landing. Although I can’t predict what’s ahead, I know the road will follow the Mississippi, parallel with the Illinois River, down an ever narrowing phalange like strip of land. About forty miles down the way I should be able to put my bike on the ferry across the river to Grafton for free! I sure hope so anyways, if not I’ll have to backtrack this entire stretch. The temperature is still cool this morning and the land I’m on feels pristine. There’s an untouched quality about it. Life here flourishes and the energy is concentrating as the rivers come closer together. I can feel it.
The sun tries to shine through the canopy but the road winds around shady ways. I spot a gap in the trees ahead and stop in the sunlight. I haven’t seen another human since Michael at Red’s. The animals and I are fine with that. A doe and two fawns walk across the river road ahead of me, stopping in the ditch to my left. I’m thinking the most loving thoughts. I wish for these animals to know that I wouldn’t hurt them. The bicycle doesn’t scare them initially and allows me to get within twenty yards before Momma Doe runs off, one fawn on her white tail up, one stayed. This brave, little telepathic fawn looks right at me and stays put. Maybe she really heard me and knew that I wouldn’t hurt her. I can’t begin to tell you how much pleasure this brought me. If deer can smile then I swear she did. My watery eyes can barely see the road ahead and I wipe away tears of happiness with my wristband. I’ve observed deer in the wild since I was a young buck. Never have I seen a fawn like this one.
At the bottom of a hill is a herd of cows grazing on the pasture of a small valley. I’m warm now and stop to take off my thermals. Hunger kicks in early and I look for lunch. Finding a big can of beef and gravy, one of those four dollar top quality cans, I open it reluctantly because I had plans to make beef stroganoff with those noodles Tim gave me. I take a spoon of the beef and gravy right from the can. Hmm, not too bad. The cows in the pasture are eyeing me down as I eat their brother, covered in preservative gravy, canned for long lasting deliciousness. It isn’t so tasty when I think about it that way. Food fascinates me. Cheap nonperishable food items are what’s gotten me by so far but looking at these cows makes me remember a time when I was much more conscious in the fuel I fed my body. Putting the empty can in the trailer, I say good bye to the cows and pedal up the hill.
Halfway to the top, I spot a huge spider web, long and silky, stretched across the road. I almost fell doing the limbo to duck it but I pass without damaging that work of an ambitiously ignorant spider. How long must have this taken and why spin your web here of all places? A spider can’t comprehend a human’s car driving on a road. Instant death. I wouldn’t kill a spider intentionally even to stop the shrieks of a damsel in distress.
Dogs bark in the distance as I ride by small houses on this country road. The folks around here have no reason to chain their pets up or fence them in. Two dogs rush toward me from a house on my left, barking and chasing me down the street. The little guy gave up quick but his older buddy had a tough chase. “No! Go home!” I yell as he finally gives up. What drives a dog to chase a car or a bike down the road for that matter? Maybe it’s this bright red trailer; it could be acting as a matador’s bull flag for these beasts. That was a close call. Dogs have a canine sense for smelling fear and I was scared. My heart still pounds. It isn’t but a mile down the road and another hyena looking mongrel comes tearing out of the yard to my right, barking viciously on the chase. I’m pushing up a hill but too slow and he catches me, chomping into my right calf at the boot line. I’m off the bike with the blade drawn as I karate kicked him in the kisser. He yelps and runs off. I put the blade back clean. Having to kill that dog would’ve been a tragedy to me. He drew blood with his bite. His top canine teeth sunk in tearing skin downward about a inch from where the lip of my boot meets my calve. That was the meanest dog I’ve ever faced, he ripped me open to the white meat. This wound could use some stitches but I don’t like doctors and my sewing skills are subpar, so it becomes another scar to add to the collection.
Down the road another mile or two I stop to clean the wound and dress it. Washing off the blood with some water and my towel, I splash some bourbon in the gash and then apply a generous amount of Neosporin before covering it with a waterproof bandage. Hopefully I don’t have rabies now. Putting my first aid supplies back in the trailer I think about the day so far. Animals have been speaking to me.
They tell me they’re obedient creatures and willing to learn and to serve. I saw that in Michael’s training of his labordore retrievers this morning. The animals also say they’re scared though. They don’t trust humans. It’s rare to see an organism do the opposite of its specie’s instinct. It doesn’t always have to be fight or flight. I relate with the brave fawn in that. I don’t blame the doe for running away. There are drunken hunters swerving around back roads illegally with guns and intentions to kill, probably the same guys that beat their dogs after a few too many Busch Lights. The next time I have a run in with a dog; my goal is to not be scared, but to really have no fear won’t be easy after today’s attack. I was prepared to kill a dog though and that grants me access to a new understanding of peace. Next time I become the dog whisperer.
On the way to Brussels, I pass through the small cities of Batchtown and Beechville, encountering many hills. All the back roads are paved. I can picture my mom and dad loving this scenery on a Harley. I also find an orchard. We had apple trees in our yard but going to the local orchard with the family on a fall Sunday with the Vikings game on the radio is a bright memory. An orchard is a place to spend some money. I attempt to negotiate a price for three apples rather than buying a whole bushel, telling the owner I don’t have much money left but I’d love to buy some fruit, she tells me to hold on for a minute. Disappearing for a moment, she comes back with a bag of apples handing them to me.
“These are the ones with scars. They end up in apple butter and ciders that we make here, but I have plenty so take these. No charge.”
“Thank you so much! I’ll enjoy every bite,” Taking an apple from the bag I do just that. Eating the fruit, I pedal down the road and reach Brussels. The ferry is still some miles ahead through Golden Eagle and Deer Plain on the Illinois River Road. Coming to the river I see a short line of cars waiting at the ferry landing. The Middle Mississippi has six different ferries, two of which are toll-free. The Illinois Department of Transportation runs the Brussels ferry twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and transports all vehicles and bikers across the Illinois River, free of charge. It holds eighteen cars and sometimes they operate two ferries in this location. I eat another apple while we wait for our turn to board the ship. Cars drive onto the platform and the boat operator has me pull in last. Bald Eagles fly over head and across the river I see Pere Marquette State Park. The ferry pilot looks down with a wave and says, “Nice day for a ride. Where are you heading to?”
“New Orleans. I started in the Twin Cities,” I say looking up as he steers the ferry in for landing. It was a smooth park job. I say, “Thanks for the ride,” giving a wave and pulling off the platform hanging a right. The Great River Road is being repaved and it’s down to one lane with a pace car escort. I find a bike trail though and cruise by all the cars waiting their turn. Crossing over the road, the path leads me to an information station. The board says I’m on ‘The Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail. Sam was a senator and believed in biking. Thanks to him I’ll have a nice route from Grafton down to Alton.
I’m excited to see the confluence of the Great Rivers. This is the old scenic byway that I’m on, towering bluffs to my left and the Illinois River to my right. We join the Muddy Mississippi. The rivers are divided by an archipelago of islands. The Old Miss is much larger but takes the gain in momentum graciously. She knows that only twenty-five miles down the way, just north of St. Louis, we’ll meet the Mighty Missouri. The land here has energy and the ride is awesome. The huge limestone bluffs to my left were noted in the journals of seventeenth century explorers Marquette and Joliet. They became the first Europeans to mention the Piasa bird.
Marquette wrote, “While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face somewhat like a man’s, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish’s tail. Red, green and black are the three colors compromising the picture. Moreover, these two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author, for good painters in France would find it difficult to paint so well, and besides, they are so high up on the rock that it is difficult to reach the place to paint them.” That was in sixteen seventy-three. The painting faded long ago from weather and gun shots of other wild animals. Renditions of the painting have been displayed on the bluffs here since nineteen twenty-four. The Vadalabene Trail ends in Alton but meets up with the Confluence Bikeway. The sign I find says I can take this trail from Alton along the river levee to lock and dam number twenty-seven in Granite City. After learning about the fierce Piasa Bird of native legend, I stop in Alton and find a statue of a man. Robert Wadlow. Standing nearly nine feet tall and pushing five hundred pounds, Robert was a beloved citizen in Alton. He died in nineteen forty at the age of twenty-two. It’s quite the statue.
After using the restroom and rehydrating, I’m back on the trail and it takes me down through Elsah, Lockhaven, and Woodriver. As I come into the town of Hartford, riding on top of the levee I see a tall structure ahead. This is the Louis and Clarke Confluence Tower. The bike trail gives direct access to the site. With three levels in fifty foot intervals, I climb to the top. The view looks over Camp River Dubois and the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. In eighteen o’ three President Jefferson commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis to assemble the Corps of Volunteers for North Western Discovery. He invited his friend Captain William Clark along and they set up camp here and stayed for five months while recruiting and preparing for the three year exploration westward. From the trail, I see a reconstruction of a shelter the men wintered in here at Camp River Dubois. On May 14th, the Corps of Discovery composed of about thirty men, left camp in a fifty-five foot Keelboat. I look over the Missouri River and see its rushing water join forces with the Old Man. It’s all white caps and speed, quietly carving, rounding sharp rock with the merging of power. The Missouri River is actually North America’s longest river, technically. The Mississippi is the largest. From the top of the tower on a clear day, it’s said you can see St. Louis and the Gateway Arch. Speaking on his youth in St. Louis, fellow poet T.S. Elliot said, “I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river which is incommunicable to those who have not…The river cast a spell over the entirety of my life. It was always with me.”
St. Louis looms west as I pass along the Chouteau Slough entering Granite City. Craving a sandwich I stop for a dinner. A man approaches on the sidewalk as I smoke. He reads the sign on the back of my bike, then looks up at me and back to sign saying, “You’re a long ways from home now aren’t you?
“I am. St. Louis is right about half-way to New Orleans. I’m Michael.”
Shaking his strong weathered old man hand he says, I’m Donny. That’s quite an ambitious bike ride young man. What route will you be taking south of here?”
“I’m not too sure what the plan is yet. I may stay in the area tonight and spend the day in St. Louis tomorrow before continuing south.”
Donny looks like he smelled something horrible, shaking his head, he says, “Ain’t nothing over there worth seeing. You’d be better off to just keep on going. Be careful passing through East St. Louis now you heard? I’ve had to crack a couple a niggers heads over there running my tow truck.”
I’ve always been offended when people talk like that and I stopped him from continuing saying, “Look, Donny, I don’t like the way you talk like that. I know you’re trying to look out for me but I don’t appreciate your language.”
He’s super offended instantly all riled up, saying, “Well fuck you then! Go down there and get your shit stolen by those animals and see what you think then.”
“I don’t have time for ignorance. You’re part of the problem Don. You’re an animal,” saying that I get on my bike and pedal away. Red in the face and shouting at me, he wants me to come back and fight. Racist and violent. Not a friendly combination. Big cities don’t intimidate me. Neither do men like Don. The confluence bikeway ends at the Granite City lock and dam. Riding on the three now, I come into Venice and see the McKinley Bridge leading over to The Lou, gateway to the west. I continue south through Brooklyn. Darkness comes in and the city lights the horizon. I’m not too sure what I’ll do for camping tonight. Instinct says to keep moving. East St. Louis isn’t as bad as ignorant people would like to portray it to be. I get turned around by the freeway system and lose the three. Pulling up at a busy corner store, I leave my bike unlocked and walk in to get directions and buy a beer. There’s some gangsters around here, cars with rims and rap music. I walk out with a beer and there’s a guy by my Raleigh. He says, “I saw this bike unlocked here and thought this must be a bad man.”
He’s friendly enough and I crack open my beer pouring it into my Power Ade bottle, saying, “Well I suppose I could be locking it up around here but I wasn’t planning on staying long.” I toss my empty can in the trash and head out with a nod, pedaling south, trying to find the three again. Some kids play on the stoup to my right so I stop and say hello. They’re fascinated by my head lamp, touching my bike and hanging on the trailer. I told them about Minnesota. They might never see another guy like me roll through here and I’m happy I stopped to talk before moving on. I find the three again and made it down to Cahokia, coming up to an RV Park. It’s nine p.m. and the office is closed. Grabbing a stack of firewood, I pull in without paying, finding a section of the park designated for tents. Setting mine up; I get situated and start a fire.
This land I’m on is sacred. The Cahokia Mounds east of here are a U.S. Historic National Landmark as well as a World Heritage Site. According to archeological finds, the city of Cahokia was home to the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico. Inhabited from A.D. seven hundred to fourteen hundred, Cahokia was one of the greatest cities in the world with a population larger than London’s in twelve fifty. The city was comprised of one hundred and twenty earthen mounds. Excavations of the area uncovered temples surrounded by an oak and hickory stockade made of twenty thousand-twenty foot logs. This great wall encompassing the Central Palisade is believed to have been a defense structure. Another notable archeological discovery is ‘Woodhenge,’ a system of sun calendars made with posts of red cedar. The building of the mounds and calendars in-line with the rising sun suggests the people of Cahokia may have worshiped the Great Star. Evidence of human sacrifice is amongst the remains of burial sites around Monk’s Mound. No written records are found of the city and it seems as if the civilization disappeared, abandoning the mounds completely sometime around fourteen hundred. This flood plain would have provided a thriving place for agriculture. What made the people here disappear over a century before the first arriving Europeans?
The wood pile burned down as I had some dinner and thought about Cahokia. Walking over to the neighbor’s place I meet three guys sitting around a fire of their own. They hand me a beer and I find out two are brother’s, in law, working in the area. Rather than spend money on a hotel each night, they use campsites like this and travel to where the work is. The other guy lives here in a fish house. That’s what it looks like to me. He rents the ‘cabin,’ and I say cabin but really it’s just a room with a roof and bed, for three hundred dollars a month which also grants him access to all the amazing amenities the park has to offer its residence. When he talks he says the word basically repeatedly. Everything gets broken down to the basics with him. The brother’s, in law, both call their girls. The younger of the two seems to be in the dog house for cheating with a hooker. As he tells me the story I realize this young man is Corey Anderson’s twin. What a doppelganger! Even his voice and mannerisms remind me of my old friend. He passes around a little joint and we all have a puff and another drink. These guys have to work in the morning. So do I. Saying goodnight, I retire to my tent. I made it about eighty miles today and I’m toast. What will I do tomorrow? Will I go explore the big city of St. Louis and play some music? I would like to meet Nelly, I guess I’ll sleep on it.
I once dreamt I became an eagle…
——-I felt a strong current of energy pulsing within me, rising and
falling along my spine, winding much like the river but more like a
serpent. The fluid of my spirit rippled as the snake left a wake on
the very fabric of my soul with a slithering path of ascension. I
witnessed the serpent transform into an eagle with wings flapping in
a struggle to sustain his height at my heart. Suddenly and
simultaneously breaking free in flight, I became The Great Bird,
taking off and flying through the nebulae as I saw visions of
mystical proportions with my new eyes.——-
I woke abruptly. Exhausted. This dream was so vivid I questioned life and the true reality of my existence. Ever since this, I’ve felt a special connection with the serpent and the eagle.