I had breakfast at a small cafe near Coatsburg. There were enough table settings for a hundred people, and I was the only customer in the place. Kind of spooky. Out on the road, the diffuse sunlight came pouring out of the mist and fell mostly on red grass and red leaves, tinting everything else red. It was like bicycling through a paradox - the land was glowing red like a campfire, but chilly and damp at the same time.
The towns I rode through - Columbus, Camp Point, Clayton, Camden - all appeared to be struggling. "For Sale" signs were everywhere. Many of the buildings showed evidence of repurposing - windows bricked up, walls knocked down, old plumbing and fixtures hanging out into empty space, multiple coats of whitewash and mortar - and it looked strange to me. Eventually I realized that this was because I grew up in California, where any building in such a dilapidated condition would have fallen down in an earthquake. No one would have the chance to repurpose it, unless they also had a death wish.
It was the abandoned houses that creeped me out the most. Some of them were very large. I think I have never seen more perfect examples of the word "mouldering". I would have taken more photos of them, but the idea of walking inside even the most obviously empty ones gave me a case of the shivers. A few days ago I'd crept through an empty house that was sitting in broad daylight, and the sight of the tattered pastel curtains in the living room, drifting hypnotically, raised the hairs on the back of my neck, just in time for the front door to take an exceptionally strong gust of wind and nearly slam shut, "trapping" me inside. I grimaced, and kicked a huge piece of plaster across the doorframe, wedging it open. No hauntings, please.
It's impressive to me that these feelings are so strong, even in sane, comfortable adults. I can almost imagine my hominid ancestors, slowly being whittled away over hundreds of thousands of years, as a few of them got too curious for their own good and went wandering out into the dark fields, beyond the reach of the campfire. When there was no feeling of dread to bring them scurrying back, an enormous hungry monster would come lunging through the darkness and tear them apart. So the ones that survived became mysteriously afraid of darkness, aloneness, unfamiliar empty spaces, et cetera.
It makes a lot of sense: When we're scared we don't instinctively picture the face of a lion. That would be too specific, and therefore less effective. No, we get scared of the conditions that our predators preferred. An empty house combines that with our fear of violent territorial disputes against other apes. A perfect storm of creep-you-out-ness. It couldn't be any more scary unless it were full of chittering insects and sharp objects that would impale or poison us. Oh wait ... mouldering houses often are. Well there you go.
I took this 30-second exposure of a moonlit house that I was too chicken to wander inside:
I rode on into the night. A possum dashed in front of me and went skittering along the shoulder, like a little hairy grey sausage. Later on I saw a string of ghostly deer bounding across the road in silence. Then after that I heard a chorus of coyotes yapping it up. Here's a recording!
11-8-11 7:04 PM: Coyotes whooping it up
By the time I arrived in Rushville and booked a room, I had totaled 56 miles of riding. The local Mexican restaurant had just closed, so I got a snack at the Hardee's instead, feeling very sick of fast-food joints. I had several pleasant conversations with the employees there, and realized that I was developing an impression - perhaps unfairly - of the quality of the people in Illinois versus the people in Missouri. People here seemed to be just a bit more self-aware, a little quicker on the draw. Was it just my own mood? Or coincidence?
Back in the motel, I peeled off my layers, including my plastic-bag sock insulation:
It looks all ghetto'n'stuff, but it sure is effective.