Today we biked through the Mississippi River floodplain, listened to (Come on Feel the) Illinois(e), and thought about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
There are two ways to get to Chester, IL, from Carbondale: a northerly and a southerly route. The southerly takes you through long flat expanses of the Mississippi River floodplain, eventually following the river itself up to the town. There must be something to recommend the northerly route — perhaps it has no gravel. But the nature of this trip is that you're always and (almost) only moving forward. We took the southerly route, and we highly recommend it for its pleasant riding and its beauty. We did not and we likely never will take the other trail. And there were certainly many things on the trail we did take that we missed. But we move onward.
I (Beau) grew up largely in northwest Mississippi, not far from the river itself, and this landscape often felt vaguely familiar. The big bluffs, the long flat stretch of farmland leading to the river, the levee — there was a big bluff a few miles from my house, and one of the middle schools I attended was in the middle of endless-seeming fields of cotton. The towns and houses here, hidden by only a patch of trees in the otherwise continuous flatness, still somehow sneak up on you. Suddenly you're passing through somewhere. People live here, grow up here, die here, under this immense sky. And we pass through in minutes. We keep moving onward.
Eventually we joined Highway 3, which led us a few hilly miles into Chester, which we learned was the home, or at least the place of origin, of Popeye the Sailorman et al.
In Chester we stayed in a small shed provided to cyclists by the local Order of Eagles, which is like an Elk's Lodge or Lion's Club. We perused the town's Popeye statues, met our first other TransAm riders, and spent a couple hours talking with a new friend, Amie, outside a men's clothier-turned-wine bar.
But hey, Sara — when we were at dinner the night before, our host Jack told us that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. One of the first things you said to me, once we were alone, was how it felt like a shame that we couldn't just mourn the woman. We've talked about that a little, but it seems like now is a good time to have another conversation.
Sara: Yeah... We'd just ridden over 100 miles and I had no idea of any of the day's news. And we sit down to dinner with Jack and he just kind of mentions it casually. I remember thinking, "I can't lose my shit in this situation," but losing it is the first reaction I had. And then I thought, God, how terrible. That we've built a system—a rigged and weighted and totally corrupted structure—where our first reaction can't simply be to celebrate this incredible human being, and to mourn her passing. Instead, we panic. We think, Everything was hanging on her! We're so addicted to superheroes—to powerful individuals we wish would somehow save us from ourselves—and we wanted her to be one. And now we have to keep dealing with the fact that addiction to superheroes and rabid, rugged individualism is part of why we're here in the first place.
Beau: I'll admit, though — I feel so impotent, sometimes, in the face of structures you're talking about, that it's nice to have at least the idea of someone out there, up there, with enough power and moral sense to (seemingly) singlehandedly hold on to a semblance of balance. And it's interesting how sometimes it's these hero figures that keep us non-heroes inspired and engaged. Of course, no one person can do all that needs doing. Of course, we all fail, and we are all fragile and finite. And there is work for us all to do, even if it can be hard to pinpoint that work.
Sara: I think the hardness of “pinpointing that work” is where the feeling of impotence comes in. I’m in a daily battle against feelings of futility about just about everything — so many people are. I email my representatives, I call, I donate, I vote — and the monsters with power seem to just accumulate more power. Side note: I’ve been bemused by the number of people frantically pointing out the fact that Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham were all, “Oh a new justice shouldn’t be confirmed until after the new president takes office — please hold me to my word!” back in 2016. These men have no word to hold them to. They have no honor. They have no integrity. Shouting, “Hypocrisy!” means nothing to them. They have no ethics at all — just a brutal, self-serving power drive. But. Even with real live fascists scrabbling to maintain power, one thing I really try hard not to do is use the language of apocalypse. It’s impossible not to think apocalyptically sometimes, but I won’t allow myself to slip casually into talking about “the end of the world” or “the endtimes” or whatever. I get it, I think I probably share lots of the feelings behind that kind of in-on-the-horrible-joke despair in so many people's voices, but it doesn’t sit right with me to talk that way. Despair is insidious and paralyzing. It’s like a vampire. You can't let it in the house.
Beau: Yeah, I mean — as someone who spent the last three years working on an apocalyptic novel set in the near future... I feel that it's complicated. What I found appealing about an apocalyptic setting is that everything is wiped away — most of the things we thought held value are suddenly gone, and so we rethink what's important. It's almost a shortcut to thinking about what's "really" important, which we should all be thinking about in the first place, all the time. So, in a way, it's hopeful. To me. But then there's endtimes-speak as shorthand for giving up, which is an understandable impulse but something we need to resist as best we can — there are people dying, and we've had societal upheaval of about a 3.7 on the dissolve-the-union Richter scale, but the world is not literally ending. It will still be here in twenty years, and if we spend those twenty years without fighting, in whatever way we can, then things'll be even worse than they are.
And I guess that brings me back around to RBG — she fought. She fought well, and she fought hard, and she made a difference. Well done, Justice. You're missed.
Day 30: Carbondale to Chester, IL, 47.6 miles, 1625 feet of climbing, 1 mighty flood plain, many memories of a mighty woman.