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Peru to Bureau Junction — bicycle odyssey

Peru, Illinois at 7am on June 7th, 2020 — Photo by Todd Tracy For Odyssey X

The first thing I remember was the sound of a golf cart whizzing past the tent. I scrambled to get everything together. I talked with the outside club manager. He asked if he could do anything for me. I told him my only request was coffee. He went into the pro-shop and retrieved a coffee, personally. Wow, this was the royal treatment.

It was about 6am and time to move on. The next thing, I was out on the highway, there were no cars. I was in LaSalle Illinois. I arrived in Peru very quickly. Peru is a cool town. I felt at home there, instantly. I couldn’t help but compare my experience at the private golf club in Utica with the private club in my hometown. There were glaring differences, mostly with the personalities involved.

I was hitting about 20 Westport-sized towns a day. Maybe some of them were a little smaller. But all in all, in every town I visited, the people were folksier, happier, more polite, and had bigger smiles. I thought about the idea of a cityscape, as I had studied the various aspects of a town center with my boss of 15 years, Drew Friedman. Drew had taught me everything there was to know about a small town. We both shared a love for our town of Westport, Connecticut. He was sort of the Godfather of downtown and I was his protege when it came to downtown issues. Most of the issues involved the P&Z department, the mix of stores, and Westport’s unique parking scenario, where one can park right in front of the store they are shopping at.

As I rolled into each town across America my eyes and thoughts were sharpened for ideas to bring back to my hometown, even though Drew had passed away a couple of years ago, his mindset, as it regarded town centers, was with me. Every town center I encountered was like a new test subject. North Utica, by far had the best nightlife, for a small town. Little Falls looked the most like an Italian Lake village. Ithaca was the most inspiring. I took notes on every little town across America, in part because that is what I had been trained to do.

Mostly I was just peddling along, trying to be consistent. Trying to stay out of trouble, which for me means no drinking. But most times I was enacting the protocols of my training. Another way I had been trained, was, in the ways of an investigative reporter. My mother had taken great pains to train me as such. In my youth, she took me to visit with Sigrid Schultz multiple times per week until her death in 1980. Sigrid had not only been the Berlin Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune during World War Two, but she was also an investigative political reporter. And it was a strange coincidence that she had retired to downtown Westport because in Berlin, in the 30’s she had been friends with my grandfather who worked for the US government, he also had a side hustle as a photographer working for Sigrid. I had read everything she had ever written. So I had her mindset along with my mothers’ mindset with me as I traveled across the country alone on my bicycle.

I was doing a bit of research myself. I was researching how Americans were reacting to being locked down during the pandemic. I wanted to write a book called, “The New Americans”. Based loosely on the Hedrick Smith book called, “The New Russians,” that I had read while studying political science at Fairfield University. It was turning out, however, that most people were locked away in their homes, afraid to venture out, and I had America all to myself. It was a weird and kind of apocalyptic scenario that I was peddling through. It was like that movie Red Dawn from the eighties, or even better, The Jean Michael Vincent movie where he travels across post-apocalyptic America in an RV.

I had a lot of ideas running through my mind. Most of the experience was turning out to be different than I had expected it to be. Actually, I was never sure how it would be.

Every day was the biggest adventure of my life. On a bicycle, one sees so much. In a car, everything passes by so quickly you don’t see it. On foot, one doesn’t make good enough time to see much. But on a bicycle, the granularity and nuance of every aspect of America just jumps out and pops into one’s mind. You see it all: The rivers, the towns, the fields, every hill in America becomes a personal challenge. When combined with the oxygen intake one begins to see the world and oneself in an entirely different way.

It was in this different way, that I arrived in the downtown area of Peru, Illinois. I kept going. I went down a steep hill and into some big turns. I went through a wooded area of the highway. I still had the roads all to myself that early in the morning. I was trying to get to a place called Bureau Junction. At Bureau Juctiontion I was to meet up with another Canal path that would take me, hopefully to Iowa.

Iowa!!!

Des Moines was my mantra. I must make it to DesMoines. If I can make it to DesMoines I figured I could make it all the way. Everything was an unknown. The only thing that I could count on was my personal ability to continue on. My commitment to making this happen. to ride my bike across the country was the goal. Everything else was a back seat idea to riding across the country. But I had to do it a little bit at a time. It was a study in patience. There was very little instant gratification, save for the wonderful feeling of my body as I confronted nature and civilized worlds head-on.

I went past a turn-off to a lake vaca spot. I was tempted to take that in but I kept going. I wasn’t out there to sight-see. I was out there to make progress, to peddle across America. I wanted to see America indirectly as I peddled through it. I was under my own power and I had to make crucial decisions about my energy and how was to use it. My immediate goal that morning was Bureau Junction. In fact, I was supposed to have arrived there in the middle of the night but I had been offered the golf course to rest up at. When an opportunity for a good rest presents itself is snatched up. As a result, I was well-rested. my confidence was beginning to ramp up as well.

My wounds had begun to heal. My core strength was beginning to be able to handle the ride. I had become more street-smart. I was almost past the halfway mark, not quite, but close.