By Stan Purdum
One memorable day on my ride on US 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, occurred when I crossed the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. I started the day in Paducah, Kentucky. Here’s an excerpt from my book, about that ride, Playing in Traffic:
I was aiming for Wickliffe, were 62 begins its run toward the Mississippi River. But nine miles west of Paducah, 62 jogs southward and begins a meander, eventually approaching Wickliffe, not from the east, but from the south. If my goal had been to reach Wickliffe as quickly as possible, I’d have continued straight ahead on Kentucky Route 286, which most of the traffic did. But I pursued my affair with 62, and after the routes separated, it became the road less traveled. I rolled along having the road to myself much of the time. I rattled through the small berg of Lovelaceville, passed some woods where kudzu had overrun all the greenery on several acres and about lunchtime, arrived in tiny Cunningham. This village was composed of some houses strung out along the highway, a bank, a store and a restaurant named simply “Cunningham Café.” In this small cement-block building I had a lunch so good and served by a staff so friendly that it alone made the extra 15 miles of the meander worth it.
Continuing, I followed 62 as it nicked the corner of the county seat town Bardwell, and then swung north toward Wickliffe. Here the roadbed was a built-up causeway running through a lowland forest, uninterrupted by signs of civilization. I couldn’t see far into the surrounding woods, but what I could see appeared murky and dark. I was glad I was not traversing this area at night.
Nine miles of travel through this spooky forest eventually brought me to a long hill, which I climbed, along with semis exiting the paper mill at the bottom. After cresting the top, I encountered a giant metal cross on the edge of the hill, overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The cross, several stories tall, appeared quite new, and the field in which it sat looked to have been cleared only recently.
I talked to a man repairing a barn nearby, and he explained that the cross had been built to honor those involved in the river industry. The immense cruciform commanded a great view of the confluence, and from the viewing deck in front of it, I looked upriver at the bridges I would be tooling over within the hour.
Wickliffe, seat of Ballard County, was laid out in 1880 and named for Colonel Charles A. Wickliffe, attorney, state legislator and former Confederate Officer. There is a museum called Wickliffe Mounds near the town with the remains of an ancient buried city that had once occupied the site and apparently flourished there. This ceremonial and trade center had been in use for some 300 years by people of the Mississippian period, 800-1350 AD.
Route 62 leaves town by means of a long, straight bridge, perhaps a half-mile long, stretched over river floodplain. At least I think it was floodplain; my crossing of the bridge was such a white-knuckle experience that I wasn’t free to do much looking at what was under the bridge. Exactly two lanes wide, the bridge is the beginning of a six-mile approach to the Ohio/Mississippi River crossing. And it’s a busy bridge because US Routes 62, 51 and 60, plus four state routes all converge in Wickliffe for the final run toward the convergence of the two mighty rivers. A new bridge was under construction at the time of my visit, and I assume it will be wider, but it didn’t help me then.
As I rolled toward the bridge, I was behind a semi. But trucks were required to enter an inspection station of some sort before crossing. So when the 18-wheeler pulled into the station, and, for the moment, there was no other traffic behind me, I figured it was my opportunity to scoot across the bridge.
I shot onto the span, but within seconds, heard the semi pulling in line behind me and roaring through his gears as he caught up. I shifted into my biggest chainring and pounded on for all I was worth, but seconds later, the big rig was snapping at my heels. As I fled onward, I heard the harmonic of the truck’s engine change as the driver downshifted, but the sound drew closer. There was nowhere for me to go but forward, so I kept on. I figured I’d be okay as long as I kept moving, but I wondered what would happen if I blew a tire or my chain broke and I suddenly lost speed. The leviathan behind me was moving too fast not to roll over me if I had to stop abruptly. Pursued by the Peterbilt, I finally reached the far side, where the bridge emptied onto a levy. There was no paved shoulder, but I skidded to a stop on the grassy berm and let the truck, along with the string of other vehicles now in his wake, pass by. From one of these, a garbage scow, someone screamed something at me, which in my unnerved state of mind, startled me and caused me to jump, much to the screamer’s delight.
The longer I stood there, though, the better I felt. I had ridden in the traffic stream, and though the truck driver may have wished me out of his way, he did not in fact run over me or try to squeeze by. In fact, I may have been reading too much into the sound of his gear changes. For all I know, he may not have been trying to rush me at all, but merely meant to keep moving forward as fast as he could under the circumstances.
During the next break in the traffic, I pulled back onto the highway, which continued on the top of the levy across the low, dark, wooded ground.
I hoped the bridges crossing the Ohio and Mississippi would be better. Actually, I was hoping they’d have a sidewalk so I could cross removed from the traffic stream — perhaps I could even stop in the middle and take some photos. Dream on, Stan.
After a few miles on 62 the road made a right turn and all at once there I was on the final approach to the bridge over the Ohio. The passage climbed upward rapidly, crested on the high steel bridge, and then shot down the other side. And the whole affair was, as the Wickliffe span had been, just wide enough to accommodate a semi in each direction. Dismayed that the steep approach would force me to move onto the bridge slowly, and worried that once I was over the top, overtaking traffic would not see me, I shifted gears and moved forward. Actually, there was no other choice. Now that I was unexpectedly on the bridge approach itself, there was no place to pull off to even consider options or to turn around.
As I puffed upward toward the high steel, overtaking traffic moved around me when breaks in the oncoming flow permitted it. The rest bunched up behind, and together we crested the rise high above the broad river and began the descent. Naturally, I could go faster downhill, so I popped my bike into high gear and was soon careening down at 35 mph, fast enough that the vehicles behind me were no longer crawling.
The bridge brought me to a narrow strip of Illinois, just south of Cairo. 62 makes a right turn, and immediately heads for the bridge over the Mississippi, which is the same width and configuration as the Ohio bridge. In a car, you’d spend no more than 45 seconds in Illinois. I made the turn and then pulled off the road to collect my wits.
As it happened, two men on the roadside were hooking a pickup truck to a large piece of farm machinery and a moment later, they pulled out onto the bridge approach with this huge implement in tow. One man spoke into a two-way radio, and I realized what was going on. They were preparing to tow this wide machine over the bridge and no doubt had someone on the far side holding traffic. The man must have grasped my dilemma as well, for he waved me in front of him.
Gratefully, I leaped on my bike, and of course, with my first stroke, the chain jumped off and jammed between the derailleur and the chainring. Not wanting to lose my protected passage across the river, I jumped off and began tugging furiously at the chain, which did not budge. Disappointedly, I called to the man in the pickup, telling him he better go ahead. “I can wait a minute,” he said, so I turned back to my bike, gave the chain another yank and got it re-railed. I climbed back on, pulled ahead of the pickup, and with him behind me, blocking both lanes of traffic with his huge towed machine, I rode merrily across the Mississippi.
On the Missouri side, a long line of traffic waited to make the eastbound crossing, and a collection of large farm implements, including combines and other machines I did not recognize, sat on the roadside, apparently having already been shuttled across. I waved my thanks to my protector and sailed out westbound following 62 across the top of a long levee between crop fields on the flood plains below.