Pittsburg, KS > Murphysboro, IL
Fortunately, I had a travel lockring tool just for this specific application!
Being a travel-sized pipsqueak of a tool, it took a little while to do the job. I was glad I had used it once before at home to figure out how to use it before I really needed to use it. I'm glad I did because being in a completely shadeless place in the middle of the afternoon on a hot, humid summer's day in Missouri was not ideal. It took about an hour to get the spoke replaced and the wheel trued enough to be rideable again. They were so grateful and happy that they offered to buy me lunch and a drink in the next town. I seriously considered it, but I knew I had to push on if I wanted to make it to the wedding. These two lady riders were cool people and I wish I had had the time to hang out with them. This part of the trip was getting worse and worse by the day and the friendship would have been a nice distractor. Alas.
A while later I reached the town of Ash Grove and stopped in the Whistle Stop pizza parlor. I got a BBQ chicken pizza that was the bomb dot com. It was nice to take a break from the heat and the sun for a while and I might have consumed 4-5 cups of soda and ice water. That night I finally reached Fair Grove and made the call to a local historical society member, Lysa to make sure I could stay on their property: a little picnic shelter with a detached bathroom building. I was able to take a shower (in a bathroom that wreaked of sulfur smell)and actually kind of relax for a night, which was very nice. I kind of smelled like eggs for the rest of the night.
Eventually among the wickedly sinuous climbs and descents of the Ozark Mountains in this part of Missouri, I suffered my way into the town of Hartville and found a carhop kind of place where I got a burger and a milkshake. There was a group of Harley riders there with their wives and they were excited to see me there because they had passed me a ways back on the same road. One of the women was so wonderfully nice and gave me an extra burger she and her husband had and admitted she was worried about me, making sure I had enough money and the like. She said she was a mother and mothers just worry about everyone's kids (there you go, mom!).
The road dropped down towards the Gasconade River and that part was great because I could actually coast for a little bit and take in the view. It didn't take long for the hardest climbs of the entire trip to halt my progress shortly thereafter. Holy shit, they were hard. And they were incessant. It was like 20% grades over and over and over and over again for the next two days. Actually, it wasn't "like" that, it was that. Kansas was bad but this was arguably worse. The only saving grace for the Ozarks was that the scenery changed a little every mile. Kansas was much more dry but terribly windy, hot, and agonizingly flat. Missouri was turning out to be murderously hilly, oppressively humid (not unlike the rain forests of Costa Rica), still hot and had horse flies like you've never seen before... more on them later.
Early that evening I reached the town of Houston, MO which is where I had planned on spending the night. I wasn't really sure where the park was that I could camp in and so when I got to the main intersection of town, I took a right. The climb was short and I figured if I had made a wrong turn, it would be a lot easier to ride down the hill as if I had turned left initially. Hot damn! Houston was big enough to have a WalMart! I suddenly was much more chipper (still exhausted mind you) and rolled on over. I picked up a couple things, including one 16oz can each of Coors and Miller to drown the misery of Missouri. I asked the cashier where the park was and she had no idea what I was talking about. Sinking feeling. So I called the sheriff's office and asked if and where I could camp in town. The lady told me about a different part down the hill from where I was and so I went there. The Emmett Kelley Park was kinda neat as far as town parks go. There were some picnic table shelters, a bathroom building and a big, mostly dry creek bed that ran along the road and the front of the park. I set up my tent in one of the shelters out of the way and discretely drank my beers as I cooked dinner and watched a bday party unfold and wrap up in another part of the park.
In the morning, feeling groggy due to my unusual amount of alcohol consumption the night before, I woke up to the smells of a church cookout at the other end of my picnic shelter spot. I slowly packed up and took off.
The cook told me I could camp across the street in the little park, but that I should just let the Sheriff's office know. So I did. First thing you saw when you walked in the door of the office was a poster of convicted child molesters in the area and another poster of what Meth can do to your mouth and hands. Charming. Despite the lovely PSAs in the office, I decided I felt pretty safe in the front yard of the sherif's office/veterans memorial. There was a hose that I commandeered for rising purposes even though I asked if they had one and they said no. I'm glad it was late and there was almost no one around to catch me. It was a pretty foggy evening, thanks to the cooling, humid air, and it was some of the only respite from the heat I had experienced in more than a week. It was mostly calm, but so humid I just stuck to everything in my tent, including myself. None of my clothes were any drier in the morning either after rinsing them out before I went to bed. That last fact became the story of my life until I reached Nashville several days later.
Every time I stopped moving faster than 5mph (about my minimum pedaling speed), I was descended upon by flies from another world. Unlike the innocuous little flies from Kansas, these flies were the most vicious, unforgiving creatures I've ever had the displeasure of experiencing. That one I mentioned was as fat as my pinky? It was about 1.5" inches long and easily the biggest horse fly I've ever seen. And it was loud. I could hear it coming from a long ways off and every time I swatted it away, it would linger and just come back. The instant I didn't hear it I knew it was a bad sign because that meant it had landed somewhere which means it could have been about to bite me. A few smaller ones had bitten me through my long sleeve shirt and that hurt bad enough. There was no way I was about to let this behemoth fly take a chunk out of my skin. I thought I might be so incapacitated from the pain that I'd end up not being able to move and then be eaten alive.
After a few hours of this hell, I was on the verge of tears. I was so helpless I couldn't help myself. The low point in Kansas when I gave up was a different kind of unhappiness. The flies in Missouri had driven me as close to utter panic and despair as I ever hope to experience for the rest of my life. I started running wildly and shaking my hair all over to ward off the flies for as long as I could. I finally reached some roads that were ridable enough again to be able to outrun the bugs. The self-generated breeze was sorely needed too as the air had been completely still for the past few days.
Many miles later, after a long downhill into the town of Pilot Knob, I stopped at the gas station at the bottom of the hill to get something to drink. A pair of cyclists were there too and about to head into the land of Jurassic insects so I warned them. I felt sorry for those two. The road continued to flatten out just enough to start making some headway again and once I came out of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways system, I felt home free. The road became a series of rolling hills and big vistas as everything after this point led down to the Mississippi River basin.
It was mostly downhill and flat as I rode towards the river. Genetically modified corn fields lined the roads for miles in every direction, with each plot having a sign that said what strand of corn was planted there. I reached the bridge into Chester and not wanting to get hit by a car or piss them off, just looked straight ahead and made it over the bridge and the Mississippi River as fast as I could... which still wasn't very fast. Once on the Illinois side, I stopped at the welcome center and took in the view from the high bank of the river and snacked on some raisins, canned tuna and butter pretzels. I watched the sun set for a while, not caring that I'd have to ride well into the night to make it to my next stop. I just needed a break.