Annawan to the Mississippi River – 34 miles
Our last day on the Grand Illinois Trail was supposed to be easier. We left our heavy saddlebags at the hotel and planned to pick them up as we drove back.
We didn’t even get out of Best Western’s parking lot…and Dot got a flat. Luckily, a gas station was next door. We were eager to test our new tire-changing skills and must have been a sight….four colorful women with our heads together over a stubborn tire. A number of men stopped to offer assistance, but we said it was a “girl thing” and wanted to do it ourselves. A curious store clerk came out to offer us water. Kathy, an unofficial Annawan representative, stopped to watch our progress and asked about our trip. She took our picture for a newspaper article.
We felt good about finding a sliver of stone in the tread and getting a new tube into Dot’s tire. But it wouldn’t hold air. We thought we must have put the old tube in during the confusion and re-installed the other tire, but it, too, was flat. We patched that. Frustration set in after our third failed tube installation.
Kathy flagged down a man she knew and asked him to cart the bike to the tire repair place two blocks away. Dot hopped in his pick up truck, and the rest of us followed on our bikes to Ince’s Service Center. The shop specializes in semi-trucks, but the man on duty was a bike rider, so he was able to use my patch kit and repair the tube. The owner was bemused by us and didn’t charge us a penny.
Kathy stayed with us for a while, took our pictures, and did a video interview with me about the trail. She is a Friend of the Hennepin Canal and asked how the trail could attract more bicyclists. We suggested more signage at each cross street so riders know where towns are and where they can find water, food, and lodging. She loved the input and plans to present the video to the county to solicit new funds for the canal.
I was happy to finally get on the trail. My legs felt strong and ready to ride. By mid-morning, the day turned hot and sunny as we pedaled through lonely expanses of wonderful Illinois prairie and farmland.
Eight miles west of Annawan, the trail narrowed to about fourteen inches for a long stretch. It was like mountain biking, hemmed in by tall, yellow wildflowers, spring cress, I believe. They were thick and gorgeous, but also brought out bugs for the first time in our trip. Dot and I kept ourselves occupied by trying to identify other wildflowers: False indigo, shepherd’s purse, cinquefoil, bladderwort, campion, wild rose, goat’s beard.
At bridge #27, the trail submerged under water where the canal had risen several feet. It had receded to about one foot, but we declined to get our feet wet. Instead, we opted to haul our bikes through thick weeds, up a steep hill to road level. This is where it pays to travel with strong women. They lifted each of our bikes over the guard rail to get down the hill on the opposite side of the flood.
As the day wore on and the ride got boring and tiring, we entertained ourselves by singing old songs, especially silly Girl Scout camp songs. (Eddie Goochigechi; The Lord Said to Noah, etc). The miles passed quicker.
The heat induced us to take many breaks in whatever shade we could find. Water again became an issue, though this day I carried two full bottles. At 11:00 AM we were thirsty and hungry, so we stopped for a long break at a busy, well-kept park at Lock 24, near Geneseo. The water fountain didn’t work, but we appreciated the shaded pavilion.
The Geneseo park featured a restored lock and, further on, a lift bridge. At the bridge, we met Don, the recumbent cyclist, who warned us of two issues: a serious trail collapse near the Green River and I-80 construction.
He wasn’t kidding about the collapse. Someone even painted a skull and crossbones to warn of the danger. We had to wrestle our bikes down a deep ravine and around the washout.
Don’s advice was also good about the I-80 bridge repairs, so we left the trail sooner than the guide suggested. At Cleveland Street (unmarked), we found our way north in Colona. However, that put us on the busy Hwy 84 longer than planned. The heat and the necessity to pedal like mad, while keeping a death grip on our handlebars, made it an exhausting several miles. Again, a Casey’s store was our oasis.
It was a relief to finally turn onto the quiet streets of Carbon Cliff, but I almost wilted when I spotted a “Road Closed” barrier ahead at First Avenue and Fifth Street. Determined to stay on our route, we walked our bikes around the collapsed road.
Heat almost got me. My face was burned, and I began to show signs of heat exhaustion: chills, slow thinking. I needed to stop frequently in patches of shade to drink, but was short on water. A wet bandana around my neck helped, and we pushed on.
My printed Google maps got us past industrial parks, farmland, poorer neighborhoods, and the East Moline Correctional Center with no problems. We missed one turn due to a missing street sign, but adjusted without extra mileage.
I could sense the Mississippi nearby….boat trailers, woods, the scent of water, but signage was unclear. We followed a trail along railroad tracks and came out at a nice park. We rejoiced to see a sign announcing we had arrived at Empire Park and headed for the river.
My heart sank to see two firetrucks, several ambulances, a search boat, and many uniformed men at the edge of the river. Thinking that there had been a drowning, I feared a tragedy would mark the end of our trip.
The firemen looked at me quizzically, as I rolled down the boat ramp to the water. I told them what we were doing and asked what was going on. What a relief to hear they were doing practice maneuvers! They were a friendly group asked about our trip and took our picture.
Is there such a thing as a bike trip high? Dot, the Nancies, and I ceremoniously dipped our tires in the Mississippi and celebrated the end of the trip by dangling our bare feet in the river. It was glorious to bask in the completion of our goal. We laughed and luxuriated in the cool water until, a half hour later, Dot’s husband drove in with their huge RV. We loaded our bikes onto the rack, piled inside, and cracked open a bottle of champagne.
Our accomplishment amazed me then and still seems unbelievable. I felt like doing cartwheels, just as I had when I backpacked across the Grand Canyon. Woopee! My elation at the river was worth every aching muscle, every moment of doubt, every one of the 217 miles. Just do it!