The first day of my bike trip, I was pedaling north on the Prairie Trail in Northern Illinois. The afternoon was warming up after overnight showers. Big, poofy clouds moved through the sky, leaving room for the sun to shine through. The cool of the damp trail and the heat of the air mixed as I rode through it. It felt like a small revolving mass of air, circling me: cool, then warm; cool, then warm. Such a strange sensation, I thought to myself as I pedaled through the surrounding grasslands, watching redwing blackbirds perched on fence posts and stubby trees along either side of the trail. My wheels were stirring things up like big paddle wheels, but I couldn't quite make sense of it at the time.
I stopped where the trail intersected a road, reached down to pick up a scrap of litter. When I stood up, my heart started racing, thumping madly against my chest. I could hear it and see it pushing against my shirt. Just days before the trip, while visiting my doctor for a refill of allergy medicine, he noticed a slight irregularity in my heartbeat when I sat up. Let's do an EKG, just to check it out. The tech hooked me up, ran the machine, removed the clamps and helped me remove the sticky dots. The doctor showed me the printout. It's unusual, he said. Unusual because it's normal, but not normal for someone your age. (Good news delivered strangely. Thanks, Doc.)
I decided I was overheated; had overexerted. That I wasn't acclimated to the Midwest with its heat and humidity. I didn't think at the time about the energy gels I'd slurped down that may have contained caffeine or how little sleep I'd had the night before. I saw a store just down the road. There was no bike rack, so I pushed my bike up the ramp while a woman held the door and asked the owner if it was okay if I brought my bike in. He started to make a fuss and I paused, sweating, heart pounding: I think I'm overheating. He looked at me. Everything I have is on the bike. I was channeling my friend, Sage, insistent that I would not take no for an answer. I leaned the bike against a counter. I was now the only customer in the store. I cooled slightly as I made a loop through the store and bought a Gatorade. I asked where the hotel was, thanked him and left. Outdoors, I drank some of the sports drink before tucking it into my handlebar bag.
I traversed the small town, spotted a place where I wanted to eat, then headed for the hotel. More hydration, aspirin. Showered. My heart was still pounding. I set the alarm and lay down between the cool sheets, dozing off. When I woke, my heart had settled down. I dressed, left the hotel and walked back to the center of town for dinner.
In the early afternoon, I came to an intersection at the center of an unincorporated town. I saw a picnic table outside a small store, but it was in the bright sun. After the heat of the day before, I was being careful. Across the road was a cemetery with fully-grown shade trees, a grassy lawn and two old stone walls framing the entrance. I leaned my bike against a wall, pulled out my leftovers from the night before and sat in the grass.
The pasta and sausage was even better than it was the night before and I ate forkful after forkful. I did remember to not eat too much because I wasn't sure what kind of climbing was ahead. I repacked my pannier and set off. Not five miles up the road, at a four-way intersection, was a bike shop and cafe! I couldn't believe my luck. I could get another spare tube (I'd used one of the tubes I brought earlier in the day), some more gels, a drink that wasn't water. As I stood at the counter talking to a young woman, I felt a sensation. Something creeping down my butt. I stopped mid-sentence and thought: tick! Do you have a restroom?
I walked past the kitchen and its alluring aroma to reach the ladies room. All I could think was how I'd been sitting in the grass in the middle of tick season and now maybe one of those parasites was crawling down my crack (sorry, sensitive readers!) searching for a warm, sweaty place where it could latch on for a feeding! I pulled down my shorts, sat down and started searching: there was no time to lose! I remembered camping with friends and doing "tick checks" after hikes through tall grass. I was on my own now (though I would have been way too shy to ask a friend to help with this kind of tick check). Upon searching, all I came up with was sweat. Beads of sweat creeping from the small of my back, down my backside.
For the paranoid, thinking sweat is a tick would be akin to thinking an old burned-out stump of a tree is a black bear. It probably isn't, but it's best to be sure. I blotted away the sweat and scrubbed my hands well. Note to self: don't sit on inviting grass unless you're willing to go through another panicked tick check. Next time, there may not be this much privacy.
Chipmunks were nearly epidemic along the Glacial-Drumlin rail trail. They appeared to be searching the crushed rock surface for scraps of food, seeds and who knows what else. Sometimes they would be in the center of the trail; sometimes, on the edge. When I got close, they would sense or see me, stop what they were doing and dash off into the ditch. I thought of all the times I'd seen a squirrel dart back and forth on a road, so uncertain as to which direction it should go until, in a frenzy it runs in a knot-like loop then freezes and is left squished on the pavement, a panicked look captured on its now flattened face.
The chipmunk, on the other hand, must be more evolved - or at least the ones along the trail were - as they seemed very decisive about which direction they would need to travel to escape my dangerous, crushing wheels.