Days 48 and 49: The Mark Twain National Forest
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
At the recommendation of Sarah, I made my goal for the next day to reach Farmington, Missouri. She said that there was a bike tourist hostel there that I could use, and I would once again meet up with the Transamerica route. It was also only about 75 miles away, so a shorter day after my long previous day.
I made my breakfast and left to get some food from the store to snack on. As I was entering the store, a man approached me curious about what I was doing. When he heard about my trip he was shocked that anyone would do something like this haha. Frank said he would happily chip in towards my GoFundMe for the high schoolers, and it was fun to talk with him for some time before I got my obligatory baked good and set off.
While today was only 75 miles, if yesterday's roads were dangerous, these were treacherous. They don't get any cyclists out here, which is why Frank was so surprised to see me at the store. But before too long, I made it to the first section of the Mark Twain National Forest! There, the roads were far better for riding and much safer. Traffic isn't much of an issue in the park, which made it quite nice!
As anticipated, the Mark Twain National Forest, while cool, isn't the most incredible forest. It was still fun to be bordered on both sides by some pretty large trees. I chose my route because it appeared to take me through the heart of this section of the forest, and it certainly felt like it as the road was walled in on both sides!
Especially with my recent big days of riding, I found it hard to have the motivation, or the time, to use my drone. On a shorter ride day, like today, I made sure to utilize it several times to try and capture the road and the forest and compensate for days of limited use. I also managed to not hit any trees, which in a week from now, I would fail to be so successful at...
This scenery continued for miles, and was definitely a great break from the cornfields I had been seeing so much of during the previous week!
It was also nice not having to worry quite so much about the rumble strips on the side of the road, which always made riding more stressful as I couldn't get that far over to the shoulder to let cars pass more easily. Here, there were few enough cars that the lack of shoulder didn't feel especially unsafe!
One issue I did have to navigate is that similar to Kansas, the roads in Missouri might look paved on a map, but often were only dirt and unpaved. Riding on tarmac is just so much more efficient that at one point I went down a dirt road for half a mile only to decide that I needed to go back and take the longer route to be more efficient. There was also another section where I decided to risk it and continue down a dirt road and I lucked out as it turned back into pavement after a mile or two.
The other issue I had to contend with now were dogs. While I passed dogs in Kansas, there the roads are flat, and I can generally outpace them without much issue as they come tearing off the porch to chase me. In Missouri, however, there are tons of hill and the dogs always seem to be perfectly placed to catch you on a climb. They can be quite scary, especially when several come at you at once. I generally got lucky and was close enough to the top of a climb to have them nipping at my heels for only a few seconds before I could escape, but now it was a constant fear whenever I would see houses next to the road on a climb. Many cycle tourists take dog spray with them or carry a stick or something, but I had neither, so I just resorted to using big bursts of energy whenever I started to hear the sound of barking...
Before too long, I made it to Farmington. It's a pretty sizeable town and the hostel is right in the middle of it! There's a code for a lock, and I had to call the city to get inside. There, I would meet Isaac. Isaac was cycle tourist from Ohio, but he went to school in New York. He was currently riding from New York to California before beginning law school at Stanford! So he's a smart guy! We hung out and talked that evening and he shared some beer with me as he didn't want to carry it any further. There was a book for cyclists to write in, and we both wrote messages for future cycle tourists that were coming through. There were also washing machines, and the suggested donation was $15 or maybe even $10. Whatever it was, it was well worth it! I looked through the book to see if Claudia had passed through Farmington, but I didn't see anything from her, so I didn't know if she had stayed at the hostel as well or not. It was on her route, in theory, but because I had been doing so much off-route riding, I hadn't met any other cyclists going my direction. Isaac was going the opposite direction of me, so I wouldn't see him again after the next morning.
He was riding tubed tires, which he said had held up pretty good for him so far with only a couple flats. I felt very lucky in that I had no flats at all on my trip! Sometimes, I would have to pump up my tires a little as they lost pressure over a couple days, but that was it. I swear by tubeless tires for everything!
The next morning, Isaac and I packed up and met at a bakery close by to say goodbye. With that, we were both on the road again. My goal for the day was to reach someone I found on Couchsurfing, instead of my usual go-to, Warmshowers. I would be going off the normal route again, but not by too much. I would also be entering Illinois!
I had two possible routes to reach Gigi, my host, but she suggested I take the northern route which would take me through Chester, the birthplace of Popeye! That sounded like fun to me, and I set off for the Mississippi river.
As I rode, I could see a haze in the air. We're used to fires out here in the West, but in Missouri, everything was super green. It didn't seem like anything would have been able to burn and cause all the smoke I was seeing. I wore my gaiter, but that's about all I could do to protect myself.
In a little less than 50 miles of riding, I could see the river. It's the first time I've seen the Mississippi, and it was especially meaningful to me because I grew up listening to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which largely take place near and on the Mississippi. Immediately after crossing the bridge, I was greeted with another character out of fiction, Popeye!
Chester is where the creator of Popeye was born, and there's a little museum and statue of Popeye just out of frame in this picture. Chester borders Missouri, but it's on the Illinois side. I think with so many other things to get photos of, I forgot to take a picture of the statue unfortunately.
Right after I took this photo, a car pulled over next to me and a guy poked his head out the back window. His name is Jakob and he was a high schooler visiting his grandmother in Illinois. He had seen the back of my jersey, where I had my website printed, and while I was taking photos, he had looked me up! He is the first and only person that talked to me after reading my jersey.
He has a podcast and said he would love to interview me for it! I was more than happy to be on it, so we decided to connect at a future date when I would be able to record audio with a microphone over Zoom. While the interview ended up having to wait a couple weeks until I had downtime and a computer to borrow, you can listen to the podcast here!
After talking to them a little more, we both hit the road and I continued towards Gigi, following her directions. Luckily, her directions took me right past a cookie shop, where they gave me a cookie for free "since I needed the energy."
It was a super good cookie!
Gigi's directions were good and they kept me off especially busy roads and made for some pleasant riding. By the end of the day, I made it just over 110 miles, which didn't feel like such a long ride anymore at this point...
While northern Illinois is entirely farmland, it was more jungly in the southern tip of Illinois, where I was. You still can't escape the occasional cornfield, but the riding was interesting enough and I was having a good time. You can't see much of the haze here either, which is nice!
Before too long, I was close enough to Gigi's that she said I should wait and she would guide me back to her house in her truck since it was a maze of roads in her area.
I followed her back and happily found a smallish property about a stones throw from a lake. Gigi said that she bought the house on a double sized property for $12,000 in 2012 for retirement after being a nurse in California. This blows my mind as there isn't a single property anywhere in California that would sell for $12,000, let alone a double sized lot! She also was one of the first 200 members of Couchsurfing! And had even traveled to Alaska with the original creator of the Couchsurfing website! I find that to be super cool since these days, Couchsurfing is almost too big for its own good and has lost the community aspect that Warmshowers currently retains. I had a great time learning more about Gigi's previous adventures, and we called her daughter who wanted to check and make sure the random cyclist she had invited over wasn't an axe murderer.
Gigi and I also talked about my route for the next day. Most people take the ferry at Cave-In Rock, but it looked like it might be closed for repairs. The only other option I had was to go south and cross over into Kentucky at Paducah. I didn't want to risk going to the ferry and for it to be closed since the only other crossing of the Ohio River was 55 miles away, so I decided to take the southern route. There, I heard the highway bridge might have been closed for repairs, but about 6 miles from the highway bridge was an interstate bridge which was sure to be open. It seemed like the safest bet, so with that I said goodnight to Gigi and got to sleep.