Part 4: Cycling Kentucky and Illinois

On day 30 of our journey, we entered into our 5th state, the Unbridled Spirit State of Kentucky! To get there, we cycled along the Woodlands Trace National Scenic Byway, which gave us great views of the lush rolling hills and the occasional farms, most of which had pastures full of horses.

It was a very hot day and we took a lot of breaks as we cycled through the scenic Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, which is advertised as a “170,000 acre playground between Tennessee and Kentucky.” We cycled 51 miles that day so by the time we got to the Corps of Engineers Canal Campground, we were ravenous so we sat down to have a snack before setting up camp. Mere moments later, we heard multiple snaps, cracks, and a mighty groan. Right before our eyes, a tree came crashing down nearby. Luckily for the RV parked in the tree’s path, another tree kept the RV from being smashed.

Over the next hour, the tree snapped and cracked every time the wind blew. With a storm brewing on the horizon, we knew that the tree would come down before long. We informed every driver who came into our circle that the tree had just fallen and that it was very unstable. They proceeded to reverse and exit the one-way circle the wrong way. Soon the camp hosts were made aware of the issue and called for some back-up.

Not much time passed before a Corp of Engineers maintenance worker used two chainsaws to cut the tree down. He told us that the tree was bug infested, diseased, and hollow. We asked if there would be an inspection of the other trees in the area but he claimed that there was no way to tell if the other trees would meet the same unfortunate fate.

He pulled the tree out of the roadway and left. This tree falling was the talk of the campground and every camper came around in their golf carts to get a look at the action, an event that we had a front row seat from start to finish.

We went to sleep to the wind blowing and the pitter-patter of rain on our tent-fly  knowing that the odds of a second tree falling was highly unlikely. Though, Milo did wake up with every noise to peer out and survey the land.

Not very well rested, early the next morning we set out for Cave-In Rock, IL. Our time in Kentucky was very short, only traversing 110 miles of it. Before long, we met another bicycle tourist who spoke to us from the middle of the road, while we stayed in the margin. We didn’t exchange names, but we did find out that he was based out of St. Louis and that he does loops around the country all beginning and ending in his hometown of St. Louis. He also asked if we had yet to get off of our bikes to push them up any monster hills to which we replied no, not yet.

Though, that day, we encountered our first massive hills. Adventure Cycling Association generally includes topography with their maps, but for whatever reason, the Great Rivers South maps do not include this incredibly important information. The map’s description indicates that for section 1 of Great Rivers South, there are a lot of rolling hills averaging 50 ft and that we would climb 23,500 feet in total. That day, we spent a lot of time pushing our bicycles up hills that were as steep, though not as long nor high as the mountains we cycled/pushed our bikes up in Colorado. The hill in the above photo is steeper than it looks! We do hope that the next printing of their maps include topography, as the mental preparation for the hills is very important to keep our spirits high, not to mention so we can estimate how many miles we may be able to cycle in a day. One 50 mile day may take us 5 hours if it is flat, where another 50 mile day through rolling hills may take us 7-8 hours.

We found ourselves on the original Trail of Tears route for a large portion of our day. This route was utilized for the forced removal of Native Americans between 1830 and 1850 from the Southeastern US to reservations west of the Mississippi. Many of the people forced to leave their ancestral lands died of disease, starvation, and exposure along the way, thus giving the route its appropriate name. These re-locations, also appropriately referred to as death marches, are just one of many examples of our nation’s racist heritage.

Only 2 miles before Cave-In Rock, the terrain finally started to level out.

We cycled directly to the bank of the Ohio River in Kentucky where a ferry waited for us to come aboard for the 5 minute journey across the muddy waters to Illinois.

Surprisingly, there was not a fee for the ferry.

We took in the views and the passengers in their cars all stared at us like we were from another planet; presumably wondering, what are these crazy people doing on bicycles?

On the other side of the river, we were in the 6th state of our 16 state journey.

Everywhere we looked, there were indications that bikers were welcome, though we are almost positive we aren’t the type of bikers they have in mind. However, we know we are way tougher than the bikers they usually serve as clientele.

Cave-In Rock is a one street town, much like many of the towns we have cycled through. We quickly made our way to the Cave-In Rock State Park, a destination our map told us was a must see.

The town’s claim to fame, the Cave-In-Rock, is a yawning cavern eroded from the limestone bluffs by the Ohio River’s floods, especially during the melt-off following the most recent North American ice age. The arch is about 20 feet high, 55 feet wide, and extends about 200 feet into the bluff.

The temperature dropped almost immediately upon entering the cave, which was a nice reprieve for us after a hot day of cycling, and we imagined that the cave’s visitors throughout time also found similar relief during their journeys along the Ohio River. The cave was used for centuries by Native Americans and later became notorious during the 1700s for its use by bandits that tormented river boats doing commerce along the river.

Toward the rear of the cave is a 100-foot vertical fissure in the rock, where sunlight illuminates the darkness and which served as a natural chimney for weary travelers.

Check out that band of shells trapped in the limestone millennia ago!

We eagerly explored the geological features before heading to the campground for the night. Luckily for us, we had the entire place to ourselves! We set up our tent under a gazebo in case of the humid evening rain we had been experiencing and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset. Soon after, we were tucked into our sleeping bags and drifting off to sleep.

We had to break the route into a few long and a few short days based on where the campgrounds and towns are situated so the next day was a short 30-mile ride to Golconda, IL. Along the way, we helped a few more turtles safely cross the road.

At the top of our last hill for the day, we encountered this very nice bicycle rest stop that someone had set up in front of their home.

Thank you, Jenkins Family, for thinking of us weary cyclists! There was a shaded bench and even fresh water available.

We stopped for breakfast in the quaint Elizabethtown. If there wasn’t already a town with this name, we would have advocated that one be created in honor of our amazing housemate, Elizabeth, who is back in Portland providing excellent care to our fur babies and managing our house while we are away. This trip would not be possible without her and we cannot thank her enough!

As we were finishing breakfast, we spotted another pair of cyclists heading up the road. We flagged them down and had a brief chat before they continued on their way. These guys are averaging a whopping 80 miles a day! They are riding the Trans-American route and Manford (left) started his trip in Portland- the pair found each other on the road and share the same destination of Yorktown. They laughingly told us that the worst part of their journey so far is…(marked pause)…there is no worst part. Everything was great, you’ll love it, they told us, you can find plenty of places to sleep, etc. We think that men have an easier time on the road due to their natural strength, because they can choose to go days without a shower (something we try to avoid because cleanliness not only keeps the stink away but is also necessary for our health), and their ability to sleep pretty much anywhere without risk of being disturbed by predatory men. That’s why we think that we are tougher because we have much more to contend with.

Our second-to-last night in Illinois was spent in the quaint town of Golconda, home of the Pope County Pirates.

We only cycled about 40 miles that day, so we had plenty of time and energy to go directly to the library to update our blog. We really liked this memorial bench in front of the library, which was etched with the quote, “a library is not a luxury, but one of the necessities of life.”

We typically spend about 2-3 hours on each blog entry, taking turns on the keyboard so each of our writing styles are represented. On short cycling days, we spend the rest of the afternoon using our brain power to keep our readers updated. Updating as soon as we can also keeps the memories fresh so we can give the most accurate depiction of our journey.

We also write postcards to friends and family and plan our route, making sure we have designated places to sleep and to make sure we are carrying enough food and water with us. Many of the places we are cycling through have little by way of food options, so we must always plan ahead so we aren’t left with few options but gas station food and sugary drinks.

After we finished up a blog post, we were ravenous so we asked around for a good restaurant recommendation. Everyone in town told us that the gas station was our only option, but we decided to do some exploring to find out for ourselves. We are happy that we did because we found the Diver Down, a restaurant and bar down by the Marina. They played all the 80s hits that had us dancing in our seats while we ate the best salad we have had on the road thus far. Before this dinner, all of the salads we had ordered were skimpy wilted iceberg lettuce with very strange canned fruit and vegetable combinations topped with uncomplimentary shredded cheese. In contrast, this salad had many varieties of fresh greens and fresh vegetables. We followed the salad with a deluxe grilled cheese on Texas toast which included two types of cheese, grilled onions and mushrooms, and fresh tomato and lettuce. For dessert we shared a homemade key lime pie. We let the owners know that they were doing things right and that we thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated their attention to detail. Good food is hard to find in the Southeastern US, so we are very happy when we find it.

That night, we slept in a dilapidated deer hunting campground, which we had to ourselves, as all of the other campers were scheduled to arrive on the weekend.

We have seen dozens of deer so far, usually peering at us from between trees or long grass, that quickly turn tail and bound away as we pedal by. Surprisingly, this deer was incredibly brave, especially given the preponderance of hunters in the area, and stayed close enough to catch a good photo of it.

In almost every region we have cycled, we find rusted and run-down farmhouses and buildings. We can tell that these facilities have not been used for quite some time and will probably not ever be used again. Middle-America’s dying economy is not surprising as we understand that capitalism thrives best in compact cities and that governments have a bigger incentive to invest in cities than small towns.

Karnak was the last town in Illinois where we stayed. Prior to the 2017 Solar Eclipse, the city park was a cyclist-only campground without water or a bathroom. For the big event, the city, with the help of a non-profit organization, established the Main Brothers Campground, which now includes composting toilets and spigots. Now RVs can stay with full electric, water, and sewer hookups. The campground has been a nice economic boost for the small village, having paid for all of the new signage in and around the town.

Early the next morning, we set out for our last 42 miles to Cape Girardeau, the first city we will visit in Missouri, with a Warm Showers host waiting to greet us.

The day was mostly flat, with a few hills, and we whizzed through the last few small towns on our southern Illinois journey.

Right before we crossed the Missouri state line, we snapped one last photo on the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge.

As we type, we are sitting in the Cape Girardeau Public Library, arguably the nicest library we have been to on our journey, quite possibly in the top 5 best libraries we have ever visited. We are using a visitors pass, free of charge to write this entry.

Stay tuned for our next entry detailing our journey westward in Missouri!

One response to “Part 4: Cycling Kentucky and Illinois

  1. It’s Kim from Alabama keeping up with y’all. I am glad your experiences have been mostly good. I do worry about some people and their attitudes, as well as your being female and traveling as you are. We have walls and a roof on our building now! Keep peddling.

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