By Christopher Cudworth
It has been a long time since I last participated in the vaunted tradition known as “Guys Weekend.” In fact I’ve never, ever really been on a guy’s weekend. Not by name, anyway. Not where you go away to a cabin and do stuff that guys do when they are not with their wives.
Having been placed in the odd but not entirely rare position of no longer having a wife due to her death from cancer just over two months ago, the Guy’s Weekend was an inviting proposition to get out of a house in which the clutter too often gets the best of me.
It’s been just me and the dog at home for 7 weeks. But the Guys Weekend also happened to coincide with my daughter’s graduation from college, which also happened to be another hour in the same direction as the Guy’s Weekend Retreat. That was a beautiful home on wooded property overlooking a secluded lake north of Dixon, Illinois.
Exceptions to the rule of boring
Most of the surface of the giant slice of bread we call Illinois is flat and featureless. Driving down the guts of the state or cycling across it is boring, quite frankly.
But the edges of the giant bread slice are interesting. Starting from Chicago and sweeping counterclockwise around the state about 30 miles from the border runs you up and down some rolling and pretty territory. That’s true from East to West, and from North to South along the borders of Illinois.
The northwest part of the state is downright hilly, though not mountainous. There are no mountains in Illinois, only big bluffs along the rivers such as the Illinois and Mississippi. The topography is all a result of glacial activity or the lack of it.
A hidden beach
The northwest part of the state near Dixon is in fact perched on a giant sand dune deposited in part by ancient seas. Rivers have since carved their way through and the really interesting parts of the landscape include a spot of prairie called Nachusa Grasslands. That is part of the 1/10 of 1% of native prairie left in Illinois. The land is marked by jutting bits of boulder like something out of a Star Wars movie. Rare plants cover the land which means rare insects and birds also frequent Nachusa. To visit the prairie is to take a step back in time. This is true prairie, not the stuff of Prairie Glen, or whatever name developers assign to their houses slapped on former cornfields. Flat land alone does not a prairie make.
Lessons from the real prairie
People still don’t seem to get that. And our land habits have weird effects, as we learned during the Dust Bowl. When you aggressively scratch off the vegetation on a landscape, it starts to go away. Millions of feet of topsoil have long vanished from Illinois and Iowa, where some estimates say that 6 feet of the earth’s surface have washed down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, or blown away by the wind, to land somewhere less useful.
Billions of tons of dirt disappeared from the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl because we ripped up the shallow surface of soil, converting grassland to crop land. Whoops. It caused an environmental disaster. See, the true prairie is a really windy place. Here in the Land of Lincoln, we call the wind an Illinois Hill. Short of a few bur oak islands and some planted pine forests near the river, much of the woodlands is short by woodland standards and the wind wouldn’t care about that anyway. It just blows over the tops of most trees.
In other words, when you ride a bike in Illinois you learn there are very few windbreaks of much consequence. Even the woodsiest places lend little shelter from the wind, because sooner or later you have to ride out into the open if you are covering more than 10 miles, and that means you are at the mercy of the wind and weather.
So while the cycling route my friend on Guy’s Weekend mapped out for me to ride seemed inviting at first, it took only a mile or two to realize that it held potential to be a long, horrid slog back home in the wind if I followed his directions.
Riding the calm out
That is because Guy’s Weekend called for golfing at the start of the day, and then cooking burgers on the grill. By then it was noon, and the wind from the South was blowing at 20 mph. The wind did not care that I was hoping for a calming ride to think my thoughts hopefully and with consideration, pondering life ahead without my wife of 28 years. Instead the wind blows those thoughts away.
It’s fairly impossible to think much about anything when you’re riding in the wind. It pulls and pushes at you on the bike. Your brain is forced to occupy itself with the consequences of wind force. Crosswinds are as bad or worse than headwinds. Very seldom is it true that the wind is 100% behind you. When it is, you sometimes find yourself riding in a vacuum, your actual speed neutralizing the wind coming from behind. Then the air is silent. You’re riding along at 24 mph with a 24 mph wind at your back and things go quiet, neither yin nor yang is at work. Only the whirr of your bike tires.
But the four corner loop my friend mapped out for me would have meant riding 15 miles head on into a southerly wind that showed no signs of letting up in the 2 hours I’d allotted for a 30 mile ride. It wasn’t my goal to go fast or long. I just wanted to go. That’s what you do on a guy’s weekend on roads where I had not ridden before.
No way, I told myself. I’m not heading up to Oregon and riding alone 15 miles on a rolling country road with the wind in my face.
A wise choice. Instead I rode into the town of Dixon and back. Rode some hills in town for some extra effort and pedaled back to the cabin with the wind pretending to be at my back. It still clawed at my shape at times. The road wound through the countryside, a two-laner called Lost Nation road. The name refers to native peoples that have gone before in the Illinois landscape. It is a euphemism of sorts. The nation to which it refers and the prairies upon which they depended for food and game were not lost. They were replaced. Yet somehow the name Replaced Nation does not have the same allure.
Dixon is also the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan, of whom I am no fan. So the supposed draw of the place is less than I suppose it must be for others. The reason Dixon was in the news recently was a $53M embezzlement by a public official who funded her fondness for horses and other playful whims with money from the public coffer. Apparently the embezzlement started when the former city comptroller Rita Crundwell sought to purchase a horse named “She’s Exclusive Baby.” That whet her appetites, and she went on a roll.
As reported by CBS News, her free enterprise run with public funds led to getting caught and prosecuted. “This has been a massive stealing of public money – monies entrusted to you as a public guardian of Dixon, Ill.,” Judge Reinhard said in imposing sentence. Crundwell, who had pleaded guilty to the theft of city funds, said she was sorry for her actions. “I am truly sorry to the city of Dixon and to my family and friends,” she said through sobs.
Others are not so convinced Crundwell is contrite. “I don’t know if she’s truly sorry or not,” one resident said. I don’t know how she was able to sleep all those years knowing what she was doing to my hometown.”
Some of us feel the same way about Ronald Reagan, whose current devotees of radical conservatism and trickle down economics have created repeated disasters for America, stealing from the public coffers through wars and deregulation to hand money over to giant banks, oil companies, agri-giants and corporate welfare recipients in a long-running saga of ugly, secret commerce that has gutted middle America. Those same factions want to privatize Social Security and Medicare. Who are we to trust? Really?
We should remember that Reagan’s administration saw numerous prosecutions for illegal activity, especially related to the Iran-Contra affair, which involved billions of dollars being laundered for illegal political activities around the world. Then came the Bushies and Cheneys with their pallettes of money dumped in Iraq and handed out in Afghanistan. All in the name of National Security. Who do they think they’re kidding.
That whole pattern of jingoistic funding a jump-start with Ronnie Reagan. Now the forces the believe ideology to be the commerce of civilization keep trying to replicate the Reagan years.
Juicing Newton’s law
So perhaps the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree in Dixon, Illinois? It’s a beautiful area, but sometimes beauty is only skin deep. In other words, there may be a new meaning for the term Lost Nation. Perhaps it is not so much a testimony these days to the recent past as to a present where raping the land and the nation are the real hobbies of those who love wealth and exclusivity.
Some might speak of the situation in Dixon and insist, “Well, it’s only money,” or of Ronald Reagan (Dixon’s favorite son) “Well, you have to break some eggs to make a good omelette.”
Instead we should admit that those who admire free enterprise to such a degree don’t always know where to draw the lines. It makes one think about the difference between the artificial values of unbridled commerce and the consequences of real values, which have much to do with genuine gain or loss.
Real consequences = real values
We should recognize that some things, once lost, can never truly be replaced. For example, you don’t replace someone with whom you’ve lived for more than 30 years. You live with their memory. They are part of you. Woven into your being. And that’s good.
Which also meant the college graduation ceremony the next day at Augustana College in Rock Island felt a bit nostalgic. I sat in the crowd of parents thinking about the fact that my wife was not there. So many middle aged people who looked like me were there to watch their children graduate. Many did so innocent, it seemed, of the realities that exist outside their own. They were both still living. But who knows, with what? We all suffer through the storms of life.
The eye of the storm
So I kept thinking proud thoughts and talking silently to my wife in that language widows use. The things we tell ourselves: ”She’s there.” But not really.”
But it surely feels good in spirit. Your daughter walks the stage and sits back down, diploma in hand. She is possessed of so much character and resolve, this daughter. She has been through much more than most kids by the time they are 23. She rode through storms of financial difficulty, health and her mom’s concern for her future.
And she was there the moment her mother passed away. We all were. We carry my wife with us now as a result. Always will.
My wife would have been terrified on our ride back home from graduation. She hated driving in bad weather. My daughter and I saw some of the worst ever seen on our way back home.
Just outside Rock Island heading east on I-88 the weather turned as strange as a scene from a Hunter S. Thompson novel. The wind kicked up to 50 miles an hour. Our vehicles shimmied on the road. My daughter was driving home the 2000 Chevy Impala her mother drove for years. I drove the boxy (and requisite) U-Haul 10 footer.
A huge dark cloud followed us as we headed northeast. The southern winds picked up giant clouds of soil, then mixed with westerly winds swirling up giant whirlwinds colored by black dust. For 60 miles the storm tore at the landscape. Giant billowing dust clouds rolled across the highway. In places traffic slowed to a near stop. Cars pulled over and waited by the side of the road. My daughter and I kept driving. By cell phone I told her, “Keep it at 60. My truck does best at that speed.”
Finally conditions turned apocalyptic. My daughter called to tell me she was scared. So we pulled over and I told her, “Listen, we need to keep going because if we don’t, this storm will catch us and swallow us up. If we keep it steady it looks like we’ll get ahead of it soon enough.”
So we drove on. The wind picked up even more. The air turned brown in the headlights. Cars pulled over again. Others raced past like they were shot from a military cannon. We talked by cell phone rarely because it took every ounce of concentration to stay on the road, especially in the U-Haul cube truck I was driving.
I looked back in the rear view mirror at the massive black cloud that continued chasing us. We stayed directly under the rim of the cloud for 60 miles. I learned up on getting home that the storm was headed on a track to the northeast and the sides swelled above us as if the giant monster storm were breathing earth and rain and wind into its evil lungs.
And then I saw a sight that gave me chills. Lightning flashed within the cloud and it was blood red in color. All that soil lifted off the Illinois landscape and recently plowed fields was turning the sky into a genuine apocalypse.
We raced on ahead. Finally the air cleared as we slipped beyond the storm track. I tried to imagine what it might have been like to get caught in that storm on a bicycle. You could not have ridden very far. A crosswind of 50 miles an hour would knock you down. A headwind would stop you cold. And wet. And dust-covered. Then the rain would come and you’d be shivering and cold. The whole thing could kill you.
Risking the anthropomorphism of turning a storm into a living being, it so resembled in nature the manner in which our family fought through 8 years of cancer with my wife, including those last slicing moments when clouds of fear and doubt enveloped us all before we got spit out the side of one of the many storms in life we faced together, it only made sense to ride through one last storm. It symbolized so much.
Perhaps it was a fitting way to end a Guy’s Weekend and a graduation weekend combined. You do recognize when you’ve been through something difficult in life. We have these rituals to mark the time because the wind and rain and storms of life come along and erode our memories. That is time. Riding the storm out is our principle occupation. Sometimes the wind blows fierce. Other times it is a gentle breeze that allows our thoughts to flourish, even encourages them. In the end we simply must be thankful for both. That is the human condition.