Tuesday, May 30th, 2006 – Distance travelled 951 miles

For some unaccountable reason, I awoke with a huge jump and discovered it was still before four in the morning. A problem that I have is that, once I am fully awake, there is no real chance I will drop back off to sleep. So, I got up, conscious that I was now in my last full day of the trip. I had a quick shower, took my bag and left my key on the check-in desk. The night porter was slumbering peacefully in a little camp bed and I saw no reason to disturb him. As is so often the case in an American motel, there was a large map pinned by the doors. I scrutinised it briefly and formulated a slightly crazy plan. Then I went out into the inky darkness and set off. I remember affectionately patting the fuel tank of the Harley, if my new plan came to fruition, I was about to see what it was really made of.

I drove out through Washington and, one of the first things I came to were some tram tracks, followed shortly afterwards by a brightly lit tram with a single passenger, seemingly slumbering as it rattled along. It cheered me up, trams always do that and also reminded me I would soon be seeing some rather more familiar ones.

I left Washington in a northerly direction on the I-79, heading first towards Pittsburgh and Toledo. Part of my scheme involved a brief sojourn over the State Line of Indiana and into neighbouring Michigan and that was at the far north of that State, First though, I had to get there. The I-79 soon took me over the State Line into the State of Ohio and then morphed first into the I-76 and then the I-90 (which also seemed to be the I-80) as I approached Toledo. Although I did not realise it then, both the I-80 and the I-90 were going to play a large part in my day to come.

It was still very dark and, despite the significant sizes of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, both of which passed somewhere away to my right, it was a very lonely road. There was hardly any traffic at all. Looking north, from the elevation of the Interstate, after I had bypassed Cleveland, it was just possible to detect in the darkness away to my right,the “extra” inky, uninterrupted blackness that marked one of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie. As I came to the outskirts of Toledo, I spotted a sign for a place called Perrysburg. I could not resist it and made my first unscheduled deviation of the day just to get a look at it.

Unsurprisingly, in the first light of dawn, its quiet streets held nothing at all to grab my attention, but I could not help but wonder if some far off ancestor had once come to prominence there.

I stopped for petrol and a coffee and the dawn rapidly overtook me. By the time I crossed yet another State Line, this time into Indiana, it was full daylight, but horribly overcast and with that eerie light that indicates that rain is not far behind.

I cruised along the I-90, keen not to miss my planned deviation and, eventually, saw the exit I wanted. It was to a place called Sturgis. Do not get too excited, Harley Fans, this was not the really famous one (that is in South Dakota) but a similarly named town that is in the State of Michigan, which would tick another box. Almost unbelievably, because that detail had not been visible on the map back in Washington, the road north to Sturgis was Michigan Route 66. It is little coincidences like that which, to me at least, make life worthwhile. I did not pause to examine Sturgis, it was Michigan I had come to be in, so I took the westbound Route 12 and then the southbound Route 131 and was back in Indiana and on the I-90 in fairly short order.

Then the threatened rain arrived. Not a torrent, but enough to render the surface of the road greasy and to fog my visor. On and on I went and, as I finally approached Gary, the seemingly limitless grey expanse of Lake Michigan appeared in the distance through the gloom. I had seen it before, of course, on the first day of my trip which somehow seemed way longer than four weeks before, but I was still amazed buy its size. It really is like an inland sea. Progress around the southern tip of the lake, which is also the southern suburbs of Chicago, was painfully slow and there were numerous “fender benders” which I had to be very careful not to become an integral part of. I was pretty damp and quite tired as I had already been in the saddle for over seven hours.

Just before Gary, I came to the junction of the I-90 and Route 94/294. I was wet and not very warm and I do confess that I did momentarily consider abandoning my scheme and simply driving into Chicago. Note my use of the word “momentarily”. I am stubborn, if nothing else and I am very loath to change my plans even when, as it sometimes does, common-sense would clearly recommend it. I swung west onto Route 94 and was, naturally, immediately rewarded by an increase in the intensity of the downpour.

I was well used, by then, to the way that American roads suddenly become a different one numerically. For this reason, soon after I entered Illinois, I was not surprised to find myself back on the I-80 which had co-existed with the I-90 for most of my day up to that point. Traffic was heavy and, truth be told, I was not having much fun. I did feel encouraged though, to be able to drive past the exit once used for the notorious Illinois prison, Joliet and not have to go there for incarceration like some felonious Blues Brother. It was already then closed as a correctional facility, but, when you are wet and cold, you have to take your pleasures, real or imagined, where you can find them.

The I-80 headed first south-west and then almost due west and I followed it almost all the way across the State of Illinois.

At one point, the Interstate turned abruptly into a northbound thoroughfare and I was obliged to switch to the I-280 a few miles short of the town called Rock Island, which was my destination, at least of sorts. Two things had led me on that soaking, two hour drone across central Illinois. The first was that, when I was very small indeed (that means in the early 1960s, folks !), my grandmother was fond of a song called “Rock Island Line” by a singer called Lonnie Donegan. The second was that, on the other side of the Mississippi from Rock Island, lay a town called Davenport and that was in the State of Iowa.

I came to the town, crossed the Mississippi river, which was surprisingly narrow at that point and duly ticked off yet another State, the people of which welcomed me, at least according to the sign. In Davenport, I filled up the Harley, wondering how many more times I would get to do that and huddled inside, out of the unceasing drizzle, while I considered my options. The next part of my theoretical plan had been to ride up to Milwaukee, which of course was in the State of Wisconsin, to take a quick look at the Harley-Davidson plant and then to ride down to Chicago. Sadly, the weather had slowed my progress and it was already mid-afternoon. Dreamer that I am, even I could see that I no longer had time enough left to make that trip. It would have been well over three hundred more miles and I had already ridden close to seven hundred. Maybe, I thought, just getting into Wisconsin would do. I set off eastwards and, straightaway, found my old friend, the I-80. It is strange the way that, superficially peripatetic as my own wanderings were, in theory at least, they tended to correspond to the same roads. I crossed the swirling, muddy, Mississippi back into Illinois, its forbidding grey waters destined for New Orleans. When the opportunity presented itself, I switched to the north-east bound I-88. If anything, the rain became worse, it was coming from the east and was now squarely in my face. Hardened motorcyclists will know that there is a point where it is impossible to get any wetter and I guessed I had arrived there. When I came to Rochelle, the junction where the I-88 met with the I-39 (which had signage that gleefully informed me that Chicago was a mere seventy-five miles away), I admit I almost weakened. It took quite an act of will to take the I-39 and keep heading due north. It probably sounds self-aggrandising, but I was having quite a battle with myself by this point and common-sense lost out yet again.

At that point in my life, I had already covered in excess of a million miles on two wheels. I have always ridden whenever it was possible and, occasionally driven by necessity, in every form of weather, some of it far from pleasant. That said, I honestly feel that the next thirty or so miles, up the I-39, was some of the worst conditions in which I have ever ridden. If I had been in India, I think that “monsoon” might have accurately described the level of precipitation, but at least that might have been warm. I was in some of the heaviest rain that I have ever seen, it was like riding up a river and the splashes from the drops were bouncing up as high as the handlebars. In the end I simply had no option but to take shelter under an overpass. I was still occasionally drenched by the spray from a passing sixteen-wheeler, but at least it was not falling straight upon my head. I huddled there, shivering miserably, for over an hour before the rain relented back to being just rain. I wondered how many million gallons of water had fallen out of the sky, I seemed to have several gallons in my boots.

I trundled off north again and was soon facing temptation yet again when I came to the prosaically named Cherry Valley where the I-39 merged into, you guessed it, the I-90. Chicago, with its promise of warmth and dryness was shown about eighty miles away to my right. Milwaukee, which I already knew was out of the question was to my left, but more importantly, so was the town of Beloit, which was over the State line in Wisconsin – and that was only twenty-three miles. It was a no brainer, left it was.

The rain even slackened a bit more as I sped, as fast as the wet roads would allow, up the I-90. Visibility even improved to the point where I could see that there was not anything to see. Just endless, featureless, soggy fields that stretched into the distance on all sides. It was like the mid-west, but with trees and puddles. 

I realised that I was actually very hungry so, despite the fact that it was far later than I wanted it to be, I actually went into Beloit and found a small diner. Having made sure I had crossed the State Line which was, unusually, not very well marked, I picked the West Side Family Diner (530 W Grand Ave, Beloit, WI 53511). To avoid drowsiness, I could not overeat, so I chose an excellent omelette followed by pancakes. The omelette did the job and, I find it almost sad to relate, the sugar-rush from the pancakes was a palpable thing. It is amazing just how soon the spirits can recover with a shot of sugar ! The waitress, who obviously thought she was confronted by a lunatic, took my jacket away to drip (or cascade) water in the lobby. When she discovered I was English, she then made cautious conversation about my travels. She had heard of California, but had no idea where Chattanooga was and the very concept of actually going to either of them seemed to perplex her somewhat.

I noted that, outside, it had finally stopped raining and the early evening was rather eerily lit by a watery sun. I decided it was time to grit my teeth and ride what would, effectively be the last leg of my trip. I donned my still sodden jacket and walked outside to where the Harley was positively gleaming in the car park. The torrential rain of the day had washed off almost all dust and dirt and it looked cleaner than it had when I had first picked it up almost a month before. My collection of north American flying insects was even gone from the windscreen. I wondered if microscopic particles from the Mojave were now washing down drains somewhere in Wisconsin. That is the sort of stuff my brain does when I ponder too long.

I headed south and soon found the I-90 where a sign informed me I was ninety-eight miles from Chicago. I filled the tank at a gas station and, with a curious mixture of joy and sadness, I set off. At Cherry Valley, I turned south east for the final leg. The I-90 would take me all the way to where I needed to be. Sadly, the scenery, now that I could finally see it, was not anything to admire. Damp green fields stretched endlessly to the horizon on both sides. Even after a month, the sheer scale of America still amazed me. The sun was starting to sink behind the distant horizon, so I captured that final, American sunset.

It occurred to me that the next sunset I would see would be over four thousand miles away – and on another continent. Darkness came and Chicago was soon gleaming in the distance. Not, of course, that the centre of the city was anywhere near. I entered the western suburbs and just kept droning. I was extremely tired, it had been a long, wet and extremely exhausting day. I could see aeroplanes coming and going from O’Hare airport for at least half an hour before I got there and, when I finally did, I somehow contrived to miss the exit to Des Plaines. I took the next one, for Harlem Avenue, because I remembered the name and it is maybe a mark of my fatigue that, instead of heading north, I somehow managed to go south. By the time I spotted the distant top of the Sears Tower to my left and I realised this error, I had gone quite a way in the wrong direction. I knew then that I had got completely ragged and, for the sake of safety, if nothing else, it was time to call it a day. I pulled up at a stop light and spotted a motel sign on the first block of the cross street and so found my way to the Chicagoland Motel (7225 Ogden Ave, Lyons, IL 60534). I checked in and trekked damply to my room. I turned the heating up full blast and distributed all my clothes onto every radiator. I do mean all my clothes. Water had finally penetrated my travelling bag and everything was wet or damp. Sadly, this included a lot of my notes on the trip. I dried those too, but some could not be salvaged which is why this tale is a bit sketchy in places. I was aware I had been in six different States in one day and had ridden 951 miles, so I wrote that down on a dry piece of paper. I was not hungry, so instead of going out to eat, I indulged myself with the final soaking of the day, but this one was a gloriously warm shower. I could, by then, scarcely keep my eyes open, so I crawled into bed and was gone in an instant.