I wanted to start this article saying that Chicago would be the last major city until we reach San Francisco. But America is so big that even minor cities we’ve barely heard of outstrip most UK cities. For example, when we hit Denver, Colorado there are only 3 UK cities with larger populations. Lincoln, Nebraska – the 70th largest city in America – is bigger than Belfast, Plymouth, and Newcastle!
But all that’s in the future. We start day 6 in Michigan, an hours drive outside Detroit.
You’ll notice we’re not taking the most direct route – that’s because we’ve got some sightseeing to do! We start off by visiting Battle Creek – the sort of town that makes you want to head to Wikipedia straight away to find out what great historical event led to such a mysterious name. Alas, the name harks back once more to the harm caused to Native Americans by the growing United States. In 1820 the westward expansion of the American Nation led to a treaty being drawn up between the army and the Indians. In exchange for their land, the Indians were promised food.
Four years later two Potawatomi Indians approached a federal government land survey party asking for food. They were hungry because the Army was late in delivering the supplies promised to them. After some discussion violence flared up, and one of the Potawatomi was shot and seriously injured. When white settlers moved onto the land they named the nearby stream Battle Creek River, and the name has stuck ever since.
This may not be some great military action, but it’s worth highlighting because wherever our virtual journey across America takes us we will discover a story of expansion, exploitation, and violence against Native Americans. Our journey skims across the surface, plucking a few interesting stories out and glossing over dozens of others. We could have talked about Battle Creek regularly holding a “World’s Longest Breakfast Table festival every year. We could mention that this is part of the National Cereal Festival, featuring a Cereal Parade. We could talk about the famous health sanitarium, where at the end of the 19th century the superintendent – John Harvey Kellog – accidentally created corn flakes. It’s a fascinating story! But it would be too easy to cross America picking up the one-off big stories, without telling the small stories that contribute to a much bigger picture.
As we head west we enter Kalamazoo, halfway between Detroit and Chicago. Here we see another benefit of this route – we can jump onto the 33 mile Kal-Haven trail, following the route of the abandoned Kalamazoo & South Haven Railroad route that existed from 1870 to 1970. Right now it’s 18 degrees – warm enough to head out in shorts and a t-shirt. Which is good news, because in winter the trail is regularly coated in snow, and is then used by snowmobiles. We’ll come back to railroads in a later blog (yay!) but for now it’s worth noting that whilst we consider America the land of the car, in the 19th century it was the land of the train, and the country is strewn with abandoned railroads, forming longitudinal parks.
After leaving Haven we hug the coast of Lake Michigan, following a large U down one side up towards Chicago on the other side. On route we pass through Long Beach, where I was going to stay the night with a friend of a family member – one of many new friendships I was looking to forge.
And then – suddenly – we’re there. The urban landscape we’re cycling turns into the windy city. We turn right onto the lakefront trail, cycling along the coast to North Chicago to meet Lisa, a friend of a PhD student where I work. Chicago is famous for many things – but many people know it most for Al Capone, and for it’s music scene. It turns out that the view from Lisa’s spare room looks onto The Green Mill – Al Capone’s favourite jazz club.
We’ve got a bit of time to wonder through Chicago. We spoke at the start about how big America is – and Chicago embodies this. It’s at the heart of “Chicagoland” – a metropolitan area of ten million people – larger than London. Home of Barack Obama, BB King, and improvised comedy, this is a city full of opportunities to be a tourist. We could visit bars where Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters have played. We could queue up for tickets to see The Second City – arguably the birthplace of improv comedy. After deciding that I wanted to cycle from New York to San Francisco, Chicago was the first place I decided I wanted to visit.
But we’re not. I’m sat at an Ikea desk in my bedroom, wearing pyjama bottoms. I’m glad we’re doing this virtual America – I’m excited to see where we go – but sometimes it’s really sad to write about the places that I would have been. I’m writing this at the end of a long week at work, and facing the reality that I might be working from home until at least September. But having you folks along for the ride helps me feel less alone.
Anyway, we’ve got a few more miles in the tank, so as we leave Chicago we point our front wheel towards the setting sun and get another 70 miles in the tank. Once again we wind our way to a rail trail, following the course of the Chicago Great Western Railway – once known as the Corn Belt Route because it linked Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, and Kansas City.
When we get to trail end in Sycamore we jump straight onto the DeKalb/Sycamore bike trail to take us to DeKalb where our journey ends today. DeKalb’s claim to fame is that modern barbed wire invented here – allowing the American West to be tamed. And that’s where we’re off to next!
If you’ve enjoyed our journey so far please do keep an eye on the blogs and my Facebook page. Please also feel free to sponsor everyone taking part at https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/VirtualAmerica – half of the proceeds will go to the MS Society, a cause close to my heart, with the rest going to charities that are helping to deal with the impact of Coronavirus. Anything you can give would be greatly appreciated.