After nearly two months of continuous travel in the company of other people, I am seriously ALONE for the first time. Tonight this campsite (Wildcat Den State Park) is completely empty, I am the only person here, the only person within at least a couple of miles, I imagine. It’s a lot different from being alone on my land in Vermont, not just because my neighbor Mike isn’t within hailing distance, but also because this place itself, the land itself, is not familiar territory. I am really beginning to understand the sheer immensity of the country in a way that I never have before, and in my mood today, it’s somehow a bit oppressive. All these towns, all these houses, all these lives being lived out in these places I had never even thought about, let alone visited; all these factories and roads and bridges and railroads. And the river itself going on and on.
I biked to Davenport and back today, forty miles round trip: no bike path past the city limits, so most of the ride was on Route 22 with cars and trucks lumbering by, and south of Davenport the riverside is really industrial, a huge limestone quarry (it had a sign out front saying hopefully: ”Quarry Beautification,“ but I couldn’t see the results,) many factories, knots of railroads. The road past the quarry was muddy with accidental cement made from the combination of limestone dust and the morning’s rain, it coated the underside of my bike, my legs, the tires. And the road has been pockmarked, perhaps to make it less slippery for cars and trucks, but it was a drag to bike on.
I get to thinking how everything has its price. You want cement, you have to tear holes in the bluffs to get limestone. You want steel, you dig a pit nearly the size of the Grand Canyon up in Hibbing to get the iron you need. You want to use the Mississippi to move goods, you have to constantly dredge a nine-foot channel and build dams and locks and all that stuff. Perhaps we could have done things differently, perhaps we still can do them differently, but I do realize that even my relatively green, relatively low-impact life is unthinkable without cement plants and dams and brutal quarries hidden in out-of-the-way places. I read somewhere that there are only 2500 acres of real prairie left. Can that really be possible? Maybe just in the state of Iowa? Still, it seems unimaginably low.
Going in to Davenport, I climbed the hill a bit and rode Sixth Street over to the cafe at River Music Experience, passing through a poor part of town, past a group of people lined up for free lunch, and many abandoned houses, some of which had once been mansions. The inhabited houses in the neighborhood were painted in bright colors and had excellent gardens, as if to counteract the orphaned sadness of the abandoned ones. It made me want to buy and fix up one of the lost houses, just to tip the scales a bit further towards vitality.
The museum at River Music Experience was mostly a series of kiosks with information that could just as well be on a website, but they seem to give lessons there, and the concert hall is probably cool, and the cafe downstairs is great, so it was a fine halfway point to the day. The trip home was a slog, though. I don’t really like doing out and back routes in general: they feel artificial and sort of pointless, because they are. And going past the factories a second time was even more disheartening. But once I was past the big plants, there was a bit of a climb and suddenly the river was spread out below me, and I could coast down for the last couple of miles, down to the riverside, blessedly free of factories, just green and birds and a house now and again, and the road and the river, and I was filled suddenly with the most amazing joy, and gratitude for being given joy after a day not so full of it. (Plato is right, for sure! (see Philebus))
Doing this whole trip alone would be unimaginable for me. While I enjoy my self-sufficiency, I am really glad I am not doing the rest of the trip this way: it brings out my dark side almost immediately. Caroline Walker is driving down from Chicago for a few days and will be arriving tomorrow. I am glad for that, and I’m saving the sights of Muscatine so I can discover them with her.