While there’s a lull in the action (that is, a lull in blog-posting action, due to the fact that I am presently too mired in studies to think about much else!), I thought I’d take a moment to answer one of the more interesting questions I was recently asked about my tour by a fellow student. After I brushed off the seemingly mandatory first question, “Were you ever in any danger?” (to which my answer is, believe it or not, no!), I was then asked, “Okay, then what was the strangest thing you saw?”
Now that’s a great question! I have two responses.
The first occurred on the outskirts of Clarence, Missouri. Evening was approaching, which meant that I needed to begin my usual routine of filling my water bottles, then find a place to camp for the night. Just before reaching US-36, I spotted a gas station enfolded by a sprawling cemetery (if you’ve been following along thus far, you may recall that I find cemeteries to make excellent stealth-camping sites [stealth-camping—the legally ambiguous art of camping for free in tucked-away places otherwise not designated for camping]). Perhaps I should have read the gas station’s unusually snug proximity to the cemetery as a hint that something was a little…strange. But at the end of a blistering summer’s day of pedaling a 100-pound bicycle for 70+ miles, my mental reflexes were a little slow.
And so it was that I drew closer and marveled that the cars in the lot all seemed to be from the 1950s, marveled all the more when I noticed that the single gas pump was also of vintage variety, and I was finally shaken out of my mental stupor when I noticed that the price-per-gallon on the pump was well under one dollar.
I took a closer look around this eerie gas station-cum-cemetery. The utter stillness among the graves also extended to the station itself, despite the fact that at first glance the place seemed to be bustling with activity. I looked into the windows of the antique cars. Yes, they were inhabited, but the inhabitants weren’t moving either! A closer look: they were mannequins! And not just any mannequins, but mannequins in giant monkey suits, and others with similar macabre distortions to their humanoid features. Fully lucid now, I stood dumfounded, trying to absorb the meaning of this roadside-frozen-freakshow-museum-graveyard. No matter how I strained my imagination, though, I couldn’t infer any meaning or purpose. Just…strange. Finally, I shook off the cognitive dissonance and vague uneasiness that had swept over me, pedaled to a real gas station a half-mile away, filled my water bottles, pedaled back to the cemetery, set up camp behind the graves, and slept like a…mannequin?
The second strange incident occurred on the 4th of July in Munson Township, Illinois. Now, on the previous night, I had done something I rarely do on bicycle tour: pay to camp at an actual campground. Big mistake. The place was crawling with four-wheel ATVs being driven in circles by drunk people shooting off bottle rockets long past bedtime. The next day, then, expecting more boisterous patriotic revelry, I determined to camp as far away from civilization as possible. And I was quite successful. On Google Maps I spied a small green dot with the label, “Munson Township Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve.” A cemetery AND a nature preserve? A stealth-camper’s dream! And the place was far from any significant town or road.
Arriving at the cemetery/nature preserve, I was quite happy to find an immaculate hilltop slice of wilderness, peppered with graves over a century old, overlooking an endless rolling sea of soybean fields. I felt so safe in this quiet, isolated spot that I didn’t even bother trying to hide my tent; I slept fairly out in open view of anyone who might happen to drive up. And in fact, as I drifted to sleep on what was by far the quietest 4th of July I’ve ever experienced, I was jarred to full consciousness at midnight by the glare of headlights drawing near. I prepared to get out of the tent and do what I always do in such situations: proactively approach people, introduce and explain myself. But I hesitated because the couple who parked a mere 15 yards from my tent hadn’t yet noticed me; their headlights hadn’t shined in my direction. I waited, listened, watched as the man got out and clambered into the woods in front of the still-shining headlights.
“It’s in a box. I know it’s here! Why can’t I find it!?”
After about 15 minutes of this midnight treasure-hunting, he gave up the search, got back into the truck, and drove away. They never discovered me. I continued to listen as the sound of the motor drifted off into the night, leaving behind only stark silence…and a handful of questions!
After waking the next morning, I conducted a little treasure-hunt of my own. In the place where the man had searched, I found an old toilet bowl and an assortment of rusty, abandoned farming equipment. But no box, nor any clue of the mysterious content of said box, nor a hint of why they chose the middle of the night on the 4th of July to come looking!