May 29 2013 by Jason Fogelson
The weather seems to be following us. A light mist falls over Alton, Illinois as we eat the first meal of the day in the breakfast room in the BEST WESTERN PLUS Parkway Inn. I stoke the fire with scrambled eggs and sausage, along with a few cups of hot coffee. I'm sure I'm going to need it today.
A few members of the local Harley Owners Group chapter have arrived to give us a brief guided tour of their hometown. We check out of our rooms, bid farewell to the great staff at the Inn, and saddle up on our wet bikes.
Alton turns out to be a very charming town, with streets lined with well-preserved Victorians and early 20th Century homes. The rain has made everything very green, and the town is bursting with flowers. We pull onto a side street and park next to the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine. Crossing the street, we see a small park with a tall statue. It turns out to be a life-size bronze of Robert Pershing Wadlow (1918 - 1940), the world's tallest man. Wadlow was 8'11" tall when he died from an infection, and still growing. Any fans of the Guiness Book of World Records will recognize Wadlow, depicted with his five-foot cane and size 37 shoes. A replica of Wadlow's easy chair is also on display in the park, and we all took turns posing with the gentle giant. I'm so glad that Alton celebrates its famous son with such a touching tribute. We never would have seen Mr. Wadlow without the guidance of the HOG members.
The next stop on our Alton tour was the Piasa Bird mural, a modern re-creation of a giant pictograph on the side of a limestone cliff overlooking the Mississippi River. The mural depicts a dragon as envisioned by the Native Americans. It is believed to have originated a thousand years ago, and was noted by explorers in the 1600s. The vivid modern version is quite unexpected, and very interesting. Kind of like Alton itself.
Our tour of Alton is cut short by rain, so we head to the local Harley-Davidson dealership, Ted's Motorcycle World, to shop for souvenirs and t-shirts. Ted's has a great selection of H-D bikes, gear, apparel and officially licensed items. Everybody walks out with a gift and a smile. Thanks, Ted!
Nobody loves riding long distances on the Interstate on a motorcycle, but sometimes it just can't be avoided. Flooding and potential dangerous weather conditions force us to detour from our intended route, and we spend some cold, uncomfortable time huddling behind our windshields as we eat up the miles.
We stop for a perfectly good lunch in Pekin, Illinois, at Ginger Asian Bistro. All I really care about is getting some hot tea and soup into my system to warm me up for the next stretch of road.
Adversity can tear a group apart, or it can form bonds. I am happy to look around the table to see smiling faces. I am definitely among my kind -- riders who love to ride. There are no whiners here, just a group of guys who appreciate how lucky we are to be sharing this experience. Maybe group riding isn't so bad.
We push along after lunch, making the turn onto US 51. When I was a Freshman at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana, I spent a lot of time driving US 51 back and forth to my hometown of Rockford. Back then, US 51 was a two-lane road through corn fields -- a boring, straight, dangerous road with great distances between gas stations, and treacherous small town speed traps scattered along the way. For better or worse, US 51 is now a modern superslab, running concurrently with Interstate 39 for much of its journey through Illinois. It is still straight and boring, and in the cold weather that we encounter, it's also kind of yucky to ride. Still, we soldier on.
Around Princeton, Illinois, we leave US 51 behind and take to the blue routes again, riding through small towns and farmland into Woodstock. This part of Illinois never really gets its due, but it is one of my favorite areas. Family dairy farms alternate with tree and bush nurseries. Even from the seat of my bike, I can tell that the soil is rich and dark. The air is full of agricultural odors, ever changing and intriguing. The roads are great, with gentle curves, changes in elevation and sights and sounds that inspire. Why is that farm so well tended, while the barn down the road has decayed? What are they growing in that field? What would it be like to live here, so close to Chicago and yet so far away?
As dusk approaches, we finally arrive at the BEST WESTERN Woodstock Inn. Once again, our arrival has been anticipated. The hotel is decorated with "Welcome" signs, and a group of employees and their families cheer and wave balloons as we ride up. We're almost three hours later than expected, and yet our greeting is enthusiastic and sincere. The local Harley dealer has even put a couple of customized bikes on display in the lobby. Our 400-mile day melts into memory as we check in to the hotel. I drop my bags in my room, and return to the lobby to chat with our welcoming committee.
Another shuttle (I'm getting used to this!) takes us to the Woodstock Public House, a very informal gastropub on the square downtown. We're all in high spirits from our long ride, and enjoy exploring the bar's extensive beer and alcohol selection. Responsibly, of course -- and we had a shuttle waiting to take us back to the hotel.
The melancholy of the last night of a trip was tempered with the knowledge that tomorrow's ride would be a short one -- and the destination would be spectacular.
NEXT: DAY THREE: WOODSTOCK TO MILWAUKEE