There were actually a few surprises on the ride today. First, I witnesed the immediate aftermath of a terrible car crash which shutdown northbound traffic on route 55 and sent clouds of smoke billowing into the sky. Then, very soon after seeing the wreckage, I was passed by a procession of motorcycles, likely numbering in the 60 to 80 range. Besides those events, it was a casual day of riding. I followed Illinois' historic Route 66 through some dusty little rural towns on my way to Springfield, the state's capitol.
In the town of Atlanta I met Hannah, a college student who was working at a funky little Route 66 museum just across the street from the town's giant "Hotdog Man" statue. She began telling me about her college thesis, an investigation of culture in rural, small-town America. Given that I was trying to piece together my own thoughts on the subject, I was intrigued by her research. She was quick to highlight the self-selection that takes place in many of these towns. It was her observation that if people are not white, heterosexual Christians, then they get out of town. She noticed how many of her friends used college as an opportunity to get away from the confines of small-town norms. It was both interesting and sad to hear her account of the means by which segregation becomes self-perpetuating.
In the late afternoon I arrived in Springfield. This place was weird. I dare say it was as weird as Toledo. Two buildings dominated the empty streets of this "city". One was a control-tower-looking hotel that seemed to have a brutalist influence. The other was the State Capitol building, giving off the impressions of both grandeur and dysfunction. Springfield left me feeling pretty confused.
That evening I stayed in the home of Yong, my warmshowers host. He was really relaxed, so relaxed that he let me and another couchsurfer hang out in his home before he had even got home from work. Once he did arrive, he came fully prepared with a 12-pack of beers from some brewery in Oregon. Yong, his roommate Nick, the couchsurfer and I talked the night away, discussing some profound subjects such as, "Is Springfield, Illinois the Springfield that The Simpsons are based on?" We had a rather philosophical evening.
The next day I got off to a slow start. Yong invited me to breakfast at Charlie Parkers, an old school dinner just a few miles from home. Both the food and company at Charlie Parkers were great. Yong told me about his past life as a Marine and his present life of odd jobs and helping out his family's business here in Springfield. After lunch he accompanied me to the tomb of Abraham Lincoln. If you couldn't already tell, there is a lot of Lincoln tourism in Illinois and I had certainly bought into it. Lincoln's tomb was a suiting memorial for a man whose labors helped hold the U.S. together.
Outside of the tomb was a sculpture of Lincoln's face. You'll notice that his nose is much more shiny than the his other features. That is because, much like the mascot of my Alma Mater, rubbing Lincoln's nose brings you good luck. Acknowledging that I need all the luck I can get on this trip, I gave the nose a good rub.
After Lincoln's tomb, I accompanied Yong to his family's restaurant where he was meeting last night's couch surfer for lunch. Over the past month I had heard much talk about the poor state of Illinois' government, particularly with respect to its financial management. I cracked up when, parking the car outside the restaurant, I spotted the Board of Elections for the great State of Illinois, housed within an old grocery store in some crummy strip mall. Man, what an inspiring State.
Lunch was pretty funny. Yong and I inquired about the couchsurfer's life in Saudi Arabia. He was an American fellow from Chicago who was teaching English over there. He described some of the restrictions of life as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia, telling us about how he even has to go through an application process to leave. I asked, "If things got tough you could always call the embassy, right?"
His response was quite surprising. "No, not really. See, you were raised in this country so everything is very black and white to you. That's not how the world works."
I waited for him to complete his thoughtful comment before notifying him, "You met me 18 hours ago. You don't know me."
Yeah, I pretty much lost all interest in this guy's experience when he said that. Don't get me wrong. He was a nice guy and I believe he was struggling to adjust to life back in the US. Regardless, I really don't care to be insulted by a smug hypocrite over a casual lunch. I'll just leave it at this: No matter where I go, I hope my experiences help me to relate to people, not alienate myself to them.
After lunch, Yong and I went back to his place. I was in good company at Yong's, so I decided to accept his invitation to stay another night. That afternoon we were joined by Leila, a couchsurfer and self-proclaimed Philadelphian (even though her license is from Jersey) who was passing through town for work. She was great company. Her good sense of humor and adventurous spirit made her fit right in. Plus, she could talk some major trash! Leila was right on. We spent that afternoon biking around this odd city and grabbing a bite at a great restaurant and brewery downtown called Obed & Isaac's. I was pleased to have a horseshoe for dinner. This native Springfield dish is literally a piece of bread topped with a burger, fries and cheese sauce. Yeah, God Bless Springfield. Supposedly this meal was invented 40 years ago by a 16 year old dishwasher. Well, there's nothing surprising about that.
The night ended around a bonfire at Yong's. I somehow managed to have a great time in Springfield, despite the odd scenery. I said it before and I'll say it again, it's not where your at that matters, it's who you're with.