By Ed Chasteen
“Eighty percent chance of rain tomorrow.” That’s the verdict my computer issued last night. But I had told folks I was coming to Carthage. So here I am. In the rain. A cold, pelting rain. The town square at 7:30 this morning is practically deserted. A car parked here and there, nobody afoot, Carthage Deli neon the only color. Three slow trips around the square: I spot no other place to eat. I park in front of the Deli, pull my hood over my head and step into the rain.
Five guys sit together, the only people in the place. They invite me to join them. I step to the counter, order biscuits and gravy and coffee and join the five. Bob Evans and I start to talk. I say I’m from William Jewell. “My daughter, Jennifer, went to Jewell,” Bob says. I remember her. Other former students come to mind. We talk for a while.
Jim Honey sits across the table. One of the guys tells me that Jim is a county commissioner here in Jasper County; tells me I ought to visit their courthouse. “Come by my office,” Jim says. “I’ll give you a tour.”
“Where do local folks like to eat?” I ask. “What kind of food you lookin’ for?” “Just plain food.” “Sirloin Stockade.” Harold says. “No chains, just local,” I say. “CD’s,” several say. “Carthage Family Restaurant,” someone says.
That sounds like my kind of place. I had hoped to ride for two or three hours and arrive starving. This rain ruins that. So I take Jim up on his offer. The courthouse is a striking limestone building built in 1884. Carthage is on old Route 66. Jim ushers me down the hall from his office to a display of 66 memorabilia.
While Jim shows me around, my bike-phone rings. It’s Dave Mink, reporter for the Carthage Press. Dave knew I was coming and wants to talk to me. “Can you meet me in Jim’s office in half an hour?” I ask.
Dave wants to know why I’ve come to Carthage. Several weeks back I had sent Dave an email telling him about Greater Liberty, Carthage being its southern most town. Now he wants to know more.
“Greater Liberty is where I ride and why I ride, Dave. I drew a 125-mile circle around Liberty, my hometown. That’s how far I can ride my bike on my very best days. That circle goes north to Creston, Iowa and south to Carthage; west to Manhattan, Kansas and east to Columbia, Missouri: 104 county seat towns in Greater Liberty. I hope over the next few years to ride in each of these towns. That’s where I ride.
“But Greater Liberty is also why I ride. Greater Liberty from those limitations of mind and body! That’s why I ride. I have Multiple Sclerosis. Diagnosed 29 years ago. Doctor said I couldn’t be active. Said to rest and not get hot. Living that way was killing me. I found a bicycle. More than 150,000 miles I’ve since ridden, thousands every year. Bike riding is my only medicine to keep MS at bay.
“But if bike riding were only good for my physical health, I couldn’t motivate myself to get on that bike in every season and all kinds of weather. Years ago at William Jewell College my students and I started HateBusters when a klansman in Louisiana was elected to their state legislature. The governor invited us to come help the state redeem itself. We began to be invited by other governors, mayors, colleges, universities, schools and civic organizations.
“I wrote a book. I call it How To Like People Who Are not Like You. We would teach that book everywhere we went. I left the college in 1995 to spend all my time teaching people how to like people. If I don’t ride my bicycle, I can’t maintain the physical strength I need to continue to teach. And I must teach.
“I want people everywhere to know that we don’t have to live with limits other people tell us we must observe. We all have Greater Liberty than we know. To help us know this is the passion that fuels everything I do.”
Dave listens intently to what I say. I read in his face his willingness to give me a sympathetic hearing. “Dave, I must tell you that Don Quixote is my fictional hero. As we meet him, he’s an old man. His brains have dried up from reading too much about man’s inhumanity to man. But instead of surrender, he mounts a crusade. He gets his old friend, Sancho, an old horse, a broken lance and, wearing a shaving bowl as a helmet, sets off to right all wrongs. He is clearly crazy.
“His friends come to him. ‘Wickedness wears thick armor,’ they say. He responds, ‘And for that you would have me surrender? Nay, the enchanter may confuse the outcome ten thousand times. Still must a man arise and again do battle, for the effort is sublime.’
“Early in the story, Dave, Don Quixote comes to an old house alongside a dusty road where mule drivers spend the night. He thinks it’s a castle and addresses the innkeeper as ‘My Lord.’ He sees a woman waiting tables and thinks she’s the most beautiful creature he has ever seen. He falls to his knees: ‘My lady, what is your name?’
‘Off your knees, you fool. My name’s Aldonza. And I’m no lady.’ ‘No, my lady, your name is not Aldonza. Your name is. . . Dulcinea.’ She curses him and throws a dirty dish rag at him. He takes it as a token of her affection. And leaves.
Several times during the story Don Quixote comes again. Each time he calls her Dulcinea and treats her as a lady, the only one of these rough men who do. As the story ends, she hears that Don Quixote is dying. She goes to find him. She forces her way to his bedside. She takes his hand. ‘My lord,’ she says. ‘Who is it?’ he asks. “Why you know who I am,’ she says. ‘No, my lady, who is it?’ ‘You called me by name and changed my life,’ she says. ‘My name is . . . Dulcinea.’ She now sees herself as he has seen her all the time.
“Dave, we HateBusters know we live in an Aldonza world. But we will continue to treat it as Dulcina until one of two things happens: either it does us in; or it becomes what we already know it to be.”
The paper is due out today; Dave must leave. “Call me,” he says. “I’d like to get a picture of you on your bike if this rain stops.”
“Do you have sweet tea?” She says yes. And Carthage Family Restaurant becomes my place. I give her a bicycle pin when she comes to take my order. Dave isn’t in when I call; I leave a message: “I’ll be here till 12:30.” After an hour the rain hasn’t let up. And I give up. I need to ride. Somewhere it’s not raining.
My phone rings a few miles out of Carthage. It’s Dave. I’d left the restaurant about 12:15. “Sorry I missed you,” he says. “I’ll come again. I still plan to ride here.” I say. Half an hour later the rain quits. Suddenly the road is dry. The sun is shining. I see a sign: Butler exit. Butler is the county seat of Bates County and a Greater Liberty town. I park just off the square; take out my bike and ride off down the road. I’d left home at 5 AM. Thought I’d be riding in Carthage by 9. Now it’s almost 2 and I’m in Butler. Riding was never more welcome.
A few minutes around town and I’m ready for business. I find the Examiner on the town square. “If you’ve got five minutes, I’ve got a story for you,” I say to the kind lady who comes to meet me. I give her my card: The Pedalin’ Prof from William Jewell College. “Butler is a Greater Liberty town. I’ve come to ride my bike and get to know folks,” I say. I give everyone a bicycle pin.
Paula says, “Go out Main,” and points to the right when I ask for a “lonely country road to ride.” At the edge of town Main Street narrows and winds up a long gentle hill. Dogs run loose on lonely country roads and come in several sizes and temperaments. No cars, though.
The road, Paula told me, brings you to the highway. I must have missed a turn. This road turns abruptly to mud a few miles out and forks in front of a house where two dogs announce their claim. According to a solitary sign I saw, this road became NE 1003 about a mile back.
Paula also recommended the Southside Café. “Today’s Thursday. They have fried chicken after four,” she said. So here I sit. Southside Café is on the corner of the town square. The one-way streets around the square are made of red brick and wide enough for diagonal parking on both sides and diagonal parking in the middle, giving the town an open and easy feel, complimented by music playing at a couple of corners. The courthouse has recently been outwardly refurbished; historic statues returned to the pinnacle on two sides, the courthouse grounds ringed with multicolored light bulbs.
Southside Café was featured in USA Today on May 25, 2007. Except for Thursday and Friday, they close at 2 o’clock. Menu says: “Closed Sunday Visit the church of your choice.” The fried chicken is marvelous. And the coconut cream pie is so good I also have chocolate.
Today’s ride was not as planned. But it was great. Good people in good places!