At Grand Pass I crossed the Wide Missouri. What a beautiful sight! Lewis and Clark must have been overwhelmed by its enormity. I was glad to be traveling the old two-lane highways through small towns, past roadside picnic tables, and pastoral farmland. What a drag it would have been to endure I-70 for 250 miles to St. Louis. The traffic was light and there was no hassle with 18-wheelers blowing me off the road. I passed a mileage sign which read: “Hannibal 42” meaning I was in Mark Twain country. Sure enough, as I entered the tiny town of Paris, there was a sign commemorating Mr. Clemens’ birthplace.
As I approached Hannibal, I pulled off to confide in my trusty Atlas. My next destination was Geneseo in north Illinois. To get there meant having to traverse a logistic puzzle of right angle turns on state roads for more than 200 miles. That was a little too much of rural roads for me to handle at that point. Instead, I opted to head north on U.S. 61 where I crossed the Des Moines River into the Hawkeye State. I was greeted with a sign that read: “Welcome to Iowa – the Beautiful Heartland of America.” Just adjacent to the billboard was an auto salvage yard. Talk about contradictions! I passed by a motel with a marquee flashing: “The Swiss Chalet” – a row of freestanding cabins with fake stone, pointed tile roofs, and an attached carport. I eschewed the motel for a night at a roadside picnic area just a few miles further down the road. It was a dream site with a temperature in the low seventies, a huge oak to park under, and “Old Man River” quietly floating by about 30 yards away. I thought I had died and gone to Heaven.
I awoke the next morning glancing out the cargo door window at the rising sun’s rays reflecting off the river. All that serendipity made it a little difficult to leave. I finally got rolling north on U.S. 61 as the highway veered away from the great river, unveiling endless fields of corn “as high as an elephant’s eye”. I eased through Burlington, a peaceful river front city with a population of about 30,000. About 115 miles later, I was in the Quad Cities area, a.k.a. Davenport, Bettendorf, Rock Island, Iowa, and Moline, Illinois. I had no choice but to take I-80 around the “metro” area and drive another 20 miles to my pre-planned exit. I pulled off at State Hwy 82 where I stopped for gas. As I was pumping petrol, I realized that from that point I could either take I-80 east 1,000 miles to New York City or west 2,000 miles to San Francisco, practically non-stop! I wanted to curse Dwight D. Eisenhower, the so-called brainchild of the interstate system, which decimated so many small towns across the country and was the death knell for railway passenger and local freight service. Thanks a bunch, Ike.
I called John Heath, my oldest friend in the world (since 1949) and got directions to his house in Geneseo about 4 miles up the road. It had been 10 years since I had seen him in Dallas at his 20th Class Reunion. We had one great time, playing tennis and talking baseball. And did we ever talk baseball! It was our common denominator in life along with adopting the Boston Red Sox as “our team” and Ted William as our “official idol”. We spent many a hot summer afternoon listening to MLB games, hoping it would be “live” broadcast on the long since defunct Mutual Broadcasting System. Some days we had to settle for a “delayed tape” offering (with a fake crowd noise and a phony crack-of-the-bat) animated by Gordon McClendon on the erstwhile Dallas-based Liberty Broadcasting System.
After a most comfortable night in the Heath’s driveway, I met John for lunch at a local diner, but not before taking a bike tour of downtown Geneseo. He wished me a safe trip, and I was off to Milwaukee. Now picture this: One way to get to Wisconsin was by the two legs of a right triangle, that is, take I-80 east to LaSalle, then north on I-39 to the state line. My aversion to Interstates prompted me to travel the hypotenuse, zigzagging my way for about 100 miles through the omnipresent cornfields on state roads all the way to Rockford. The miles and time about cancelled each other out, but the bucolic drive more than compensated for the choice.
Along the way, I had time to reflect on my old friend. Over the last 20 years, he had advanced to a top administrator for John Deere. He was devoted family man, having raised two sons and a daughter. What I found unique in John was that he was an ingrained Midwesterner. He was born in Iowa, attended Iowa State, and except for four obligatory years in the Navy for funding his college education, his home was now in close-by western Illinois. I figured the majority of his life had been spent within a 150 mile radius of his birthplace. He loved the Corn Belt, although I don’t think he ever shucked a cob of corn in his life.