Getting to Chicago


After miles of mostly flat farmland I was finally getting close to Chicago. It felt like returning to my own territory. After so long being out in the wind in places barely if at all familiar, getting back to somewhere I’d actually lived felt good. Like a homecoming of sorts.

I’d spent most of the previous days mildly lost in Iowa weaving through a patchwork of farms and plains; spent the night in my least favorite to-date motel on the edge of some little shithole town near the Illinois border.


That morning it had looked like rain, so I geared up in my bright yellow, big bird rain suit.

Crossing the Mississippi into Illinois was nothing short of awesome. The first time I ever took much of a road trip I got onto a bus in Pittsburgh and rode to New York City. On that trip I thought it appropriate to read Huckleberry Finn, so even though I haven’t done much in, on, or around the Mississippi, it’s always been linked in my mind with travel and adventure. And whenever I’ve crossed the country I’ve always felt a deep respect and appreciation when I cross it.


I wanted to see Galena, IL. When I worked at Galena Lodge in Idaho we would occasionally get calls from folks in Illinois who didn’t realize to where they were calling. That’s how I became aware of Galena in Illinois, and I thought it would be neat to see it.

It was a cool little town. Towards the end of the 1600s the French kicked the natives out and a couple hundred years later the area began to develop into an important hub for river traffic. Many important Civil War figures called it home for awhile. Unsurprisingly, they once mined the same silver/lead ore as in Galena, Idaho, but today it’s industry is tourism. 

Although downtown looked really cool, and I wanted to stop to eat something, there was simply nowhere to park, so I kept on keeping on.

Upon leaving Galena I got a nice break from boring plains by following the river south for several miles. Finally, however, I had to head inland again and things went back to being plain.

It seemed that very suddenly I was in the Chicagoland area. One second farmland, the next I was in an interstate corridor. It was about this time I realized I’d yet to eat that day. I figured I’d better find something before I had to deal with too much traffic. I wanted to be sharp. I’d spent many days now on the road, in pretty empty places. Dealing with other vehicles, especially going breakneck fast, was going to be a bit of a headchange.

I pulled off the interstate, got gas, and after looking at a long chain of chains down the road, I chose a family-style, apparently locally-owned place, and proceeded to have the worst meal in a long time. From what I gathered from the salad bar and the plates coming out of the “kitchen” only two things happened in the back: opening packages and rewarming food. It was sad, a smorgasbord of low-end industrial food-truck food-stuffs.

The staff were very nice, and I told them how much I enjoyed my meal when they asked. No sense being a spoilsport about it. the customers, however, seemed uniformly grumpy, and it was the first time in a long time I’d seen so many people in a bad mood.

I drank some watery coffee and tried to give my meal a chance to digest before getting back abike. Then, back to the interstate deathmatch.

Still uncomfortable in my rain gear, the sky still threatened to release the hounds, but nothing was happening. At some point, frustrated with frequent toll stops, I notice the rain fly on my tail bag flapping a little more than I was comfortable with. Resolving to make it to the next damned toll stop, then pull over and deal with it, I gritted my teeth and fought the walls of wind the semi trucks push around.

Occasionally checking the rain fly in my mirrors, I noticed it seemed to be getting worse. I tried to reach back and do something about it, but it was pretty impossible. There was no good shoulder to pull off onto, and as fast and thick as traffic was I was really intimidated by the idea of trying to get back on the highway from a stop.

Then, suddenly, it was no longer a problem. I looked in mirror and the fly was just gone. I shrugged my shoulders and hoped it didn’t fly into anyone’s windshield behind me… but at least I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.

But then the bike suddenly lost power. The nose dipped, and I lost close to ten mph of speed. I thought maybe my hand had slipped on the throttle, and I tested the theory. It didn’t seem likely. My bike is extremely responsive, but it doesn’t lose power that fast.

It happened again, and this time I saw black fluttering away behind me; and I realized what had happened. The rain fly had gotten sucked into my back wheel. I took the next available exit.

Stopping at a gas station, I realize my rear brakes weren’t working anymore. That’s not ideal, but as long as I had the front I wasn’t too worried. The bag had been sucked into my wheel, then around the axle and into the brake pads. Yuck. I picked everything out as best I could thankful for the needle nose pliers I’d packed.

The bag, being largely plastic, had heated up from the friction and melted from fabric into hard plastic, which had then stuck in some bad places and entirely glazed the rear rotor.

I performed the best triage I could, then hit the road. I made it all the way to within ten miles of my exit before traffic got bad, then followed familiar roads and made familiar turns at familiar intersections in an entirely new way.

When I pulled up and stopped in front of my friends’ brownstone I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I’d made it. I’d ridden my bike all the way to Chicago from Idaho. Rad.

Then I realized my phone had died and I had no way to ring my friends on the top floor of the building. I sat down on the steps to wait. Happy to be alive and safe and back home (in a way).