Western Illinois Death March


Roadside Halloween display in Colchester, IL

On Halloween weekend I took a train-bike-train excursion to western Illinois and northeast Missouri and, fittingly, death was a recurring theme on this fun little trip. My childhood pal Greg recently took a gig teaching political science at Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. Judy, another old friend from the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, moved to Kirksville, MO, last summer to study osteopathic medicine. Since both towns are near Amtrak lines, I decided to link the two visits with a grueling 120-mile day of bicycling. Here’s a map of my bike route.

Friday morning I caught the Carl Sandburg line from Chicago’s Union Station. Like most Amtrak lines that run entirely within Illinois, it allows “roll-on” bicycle service for an additional fee, so I’m able to hoist my unboxed bicycle onboard and simply lean it against the wall of the train car. It’s a relaxing 3.5-hour cruise southwest across the prairie to Macomb, where Greg meets me at the combined train and bus station for this quaint college town of 19,748. In high school we played in a psychedelic rockabilly band called the Glorious Disciples of Freedom, so we greet each other with the band’s secret handshake, grasping each other’s bicep and saying in unison, “Disciples of Freedom.”


Ghoul in front of Greg’s house

We spend the afternoon playing with Greg’s very fun kids Tucker and Taylor, and helping his wife Tori decorate their house for a Halloween Party that night, covering every surface with cobwebs, skeletons and rubber rats, plus a nine-foot inflatable ghost. It’s the last Friday of the month so around 5:30 we pedal to the courthouse square where a dozen cyclists have gathered for Critical Mass.


Peter Cole, a young history professor dressed in a “V for Vendetta” outfit helps publicize the Macomb mass, which draws up to 30 riders in the summer and as few as one during the winter – Cole himself. He says the ride is mellow and non-confrontational, and since the cyclists don’t attempt to prevent motorized traffic from passing the mass there are few conflicts with drivers. We take a relaxed 45-minute spin around town, punctuated by Chicago-style “Happy Friday” shout-outs to bystanders from yours truly, and a few hoots and hollers as we pass frat houses.


Relaxing afterwards to the sounds of a trio playing jazz and country music at Wine Sellers, a bottle shop on the square, Cole tells me about the local green transportation scene. There’s a free public bus system, largely funded by the university, and Cole helped create a student bicycle sharing system from 14 abandoned bikes salvaged from campus racks, as well as a car sharing service with two vehicles. The Halloween party at Greg’s that night is a hoot, with dozens of neighborhood kids running around the back yard, terrified by the gory haunted house in the basement.

At 8 am the next morning I groggily say goodbye to Greg and saddle up for the longest single day of riding I’ve done in four years, wondering if I can still handle pedaling for twelve hours (since my cruising speed is around 10 MPH) in one day. But it’s a gorgeous morning with cobalt skies and as I roll across the prairie I’m reminded that bike touring is one of my very favorite things to do.

After a couple hours I come to Carthage, IL, where a mob assassinated Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) founder Joseph Smith in 1844. My current rock band Illinois First! plays songs about state history, including one about the nearby Mississippi River town of Nauvoo, which he and his followers founded in 1840. The town grew to 15,000 people, larger than Chicago at the time, and its non-Mormon neighbors grew fearful of the sect’s growing political influence.


Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The Carthage jail is in back.

After Smith ordered the destruction of the printing press for an anti-Mormon newspaper, Illinois Governor Thomas Ford called for the trial of Smith and his brother Hyrum, who gave themselves up for arrest at the Carthage jail. Members of a local militia called the Carthage Grays stormed the prison and shot the Smiths dead.


The room where the Smiths were martyred.

I join a group of LDS college students on a tour of the small jail led by the elderly Sister May. The Mormons view the death site of their prophet as a holy place, and a couple times during the tour Sister May pauses to give testimony to the power of her Mormon faith. Finally we are in the small second-story bedroom where the Smiths were held, since their stone cell had reached 110 degrees in the June heat. Bullet holes are visible in the wooden door. After he was shot, Joseph Smith tumbled through the window and onto the ground below where the Grays finished him off. Sister May plays us a tape recording dramatizing the prophet’s final days, and then leads the group in prayer.

Back on my bike, I roll across the Mississippi into Keokuk, a small city in the southeastern lobe of Iowa, where I stop at the homey 4th Street Café for the obligatory Iowa-style fried pork tenderloin, its golden goodness spilling out way past the tiny sandwich bun. Crossing the Des Moines River I’m in Missouri, with rolling hills that are a refreshing change from the Illinois flatlands.


After take a shortcut on a few miles of gravel roads, the rest of the ride is on quiet state highways that only occasionally pass through tiny towns without so much as a gas station. After the sun goes down I roll through the dark for several hours on increasingly hilly terrain with only my bike lights and an eerily blood-red crescent moon to illuminate the road. Zooming down the hills in the dark feels like riding Disney World’s Space Mountain roller coaster. I didn’t pack enough sugary snacks or caffeine so I fight fatigue by listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Beggar’s Banquet” on my iPod – it seems safe enough to listen on earbuds on this deserted highway.

At 10:30 I drag myself exhausted into Kirksville, a town of 17,505 people that’s physically and culturally very similar to Macomb, since it’s home to Truman State University as well as A.T. Still University, the world’s first school of osteopathic medicine. But I get a second wind and Judy and I pedal to a couple of bars by the courthouse, packed with students dressed as everything from the Flintstones to a pair of Tetris pieces. My costume is the GEICO Gecko, since I certainly approve of the company’s efforts to make sure all drivers are insured, and the low-key, everyman insurance rep lizard is a very likeable mascot.


The next day we bike to Thousand Hills State Park, surrounding a large, gorgeous, M-shaped lake. In the evening we head to Pickler’s restaurant for the closing celebration for the Two Mile Challenge, organized by the local bike-ped advocacy group Kirksville Area Motion (KA-Motion), which encouraged folks to leave their car at home for trips under two miles. Since Kirksville is only a couple miles square, this is a very achievable goal.


Ruehlen awards bike lights and other prizes to Two Mile Challenge participants

KA-Motion founder Rachel Ruhlen tells me the best thing about biking in Kirksville is that every thing is close together. She says the worst thing is the potholes and the lack of bike parking racks. I also note that there’s no for-profit bicycle shop in Kirksville, even though it’s a mid-size college town. But on the Truman campus the Kirksville Bike Co-op offers repairs for a few hours on weekends, sells used bikes and orders parts for members. The Co-op donated Planet Bike lights as prizes for the Two Mile Challenge.

At the end of the night Judy shows me the osteopathic college’s deserted anatomy lab, a singular place to be on Halloween Eve. A couple dozen cadavers are zipped up in plastic bags on stainless steel tables. Outside of funerals, I’ve never seen a dead body before so I’m a little afraid to look when she unzips the bag of the body she has been working on. But my curiosity gets the better of me and the donor’s face is covered with a cloth, making it easier for me to appreciate the amazing design of the human body as my friend opens the abdominal cavity like a puzzle to show me the intestines, stomach, lungs and heart.


The next day I have to perform a dissection of my own after pedaling 15 miles south to La Plata, MO, to catch the Southwest Chief. This train doesn’t accept offer “roll-on” bike service and since La Plata is not a baggage stop I can’t even bring a boxed bike on board. To get around this I separate my bike into frame, fork, wheels, fenders, rack and saddle and stuff the parts into three different garbage bags in order to smuggle it onboard as “exercise equipment.” My ploy is successful and I feel triumphant as I relax with a copy of On Bicycles, a new anthology by Momentum magazine founder Amy Walker. Beautiful scenery rolls by the observation car on the 5.5-hour journey back to the big city, making this ride anything but a death trip.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

11 thoughts on “Western Illinois Death March”

  1. Ahhh…  I appreciate the pilgrimage and exploration on a topic intertwined with my own family history.  Ha!  I bet you never get your bike back together…

    1. Actually, taking apart the Soma and putting it back together was a great test of the mechanic skills you and the other mechanics at Boulevard have taught me. I re-assembled it at Union Station in about an hour. Making sketches beforehand of how the headset and fender struts were put together helped a lot.

      1. I’m going to have to ask the Possibility Alliance about that. I know they use the train frequently, Ethan hasn’t been in a car in 9 years. I wonder how they get around the bike limitation on the train.

    1. That crossed my mind bob, but 120 miles in one day on most folding bikes would be tough. A standard bike with couplings, like the Surly Traveler’s Check, might be a good solution.

    2. The REI Novara folding bike I owned briefly was definitely not for tall people like myself. It also made me feel like I was going to “end-o” at any moment (even without using brakes). 

  2. A for-profit bikeshop is a bad thing about the town?! maybe the lady would be happier without a shop at all. I wonder if that’s where she got all her schwag. If there’s more to the story, let’s hear it

    1. You misunderstand. There is no for-profit bike shop at all in town. There is a bike co-op that has limited hours and resources and is frankly struggling. Yet the bike co-op donated lights for the prizes. Here is more info about the event: http://www.ka-motion.org/education/2011/11/01/two-mile-challenge-wrap

    2. My bad – that sentence was confusing. I’ve edited it a bit to make it more clear. There is no traditional, for-profit bike store in town, but the Kirksville Bike Co-op seems like it helps fill the gap, and there also are a couple of individuals offering bike repairs. But I’m guessing that an entrepreneur could do well to open a full-service shop in Kirksville, especially if it sold affordable, practical bikes that would be good for cruising across a college town.

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