I biked to a forgotten town in the Midwest and got a lesson in ambition from a teenager.

The Illinois heartland, 2014.

Most people who enter the township limits of Odell, Illinois are drivers on Interstate 55. They’ll see the signs for it (population: 1,046), drive through, then forget about it.

Maybe they’ll stop off to go to the bathroom and grab a pop, to use the Midwest’s parlance, but I’d wager that most passersby stop in Pontiac, Illinois, the Livingston County seat about a dozen miles southwest.

The term “food desert” gets thrown around to describe urban neighborhoods without easy access to supermarkets, but when I was on a bike tour riding through there, I thought of the countryside as a food desert. We’d ride about 70 miles per day and we required thousands of calories to keep our bodies fueled. Food crops surrounded us for as far as you could see, but markets and restaurants were few and far between. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

Route 66 was called “The Mother Road” and it provided small towns like Odell a steady stream of tourists and traffic to sustain them. But when the Federal-Aid Highway Act was passed in 1956, literally paving the way for thousands of miles of high-speed travel to bypass Route 66, the towns that lined Route 66 were largely forgotten.

People don’t really move to towns like Odell; those who live there are born there and don’t leave. A few nights before we arrived in Odell, we were in Denver, Indiana (population: 500) and met a retired firefighter. He said he’d never left Denver. “Not even to go to Lagro,” he said, referring to the town 20 miles east.

These small towns are now the types of places where the bartender’s also the local mechanic, and perhaps the mayor. Hospitality and geniality are an art form for people out there, and they were our benefactors while touring.

We rode into Odell on a blisteringly hot June day in 2014. We were riding west toward Seattle, and relentless eastbound winds tormented us on those days through the decidedly flat Midwest.

Most days after arriving at camp I’d typically eat, read a chapter of my book, and write in my journal until it was dark enough to fall asleep.

But the day we rode into Odell, the sky was too blue and the grass at the town park was too green to not enjoy, so a couple of us grabbed a frisbee and started tossing it around. I remember it feeling so refreshing to do something physical that wasn’t cycling.

A skinny, golden haired kid hopped in and started picking off our passes. It’s not often that 26 strangers stroll into a tiny town like Odell, so us being there playing frisbee was, in all likelihood, one of the highlights of this kid’s summer. I admired his panache to just invite himself into our game.

Once our legs gave out and we stopped playing, we made our way over to the pool, and he began asking us all about the trip.

He was comfortable while in motion but restless when talking, scanning the surroundings and shifting his weight from leg to leg. He looked like a pre-teen, and his voice would crack regularly.

He told me he wanted to be a professional motocross rider when he grew up. Unprompted, he went on to telling me about his family. His parents were separated and he had two older sisters: one who’d just dropped out of school and had a kid, and another who’d moved out with her boyfriend. “They weren’t doing too well together,” I remember him saying.

It made me wonder if he ever really had someone to talk to about these things. We cyclists were a glimpse into the outside world, the world beyond Odell’s town limits, one he hardly knew but clearly yearned for.

Later that night at the local pub, Rentz’s I think it was called, I toasted my glass to no one in particular, thinking of that little kid’s dream.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was a kid in a quiet town and thought my ticket out was a skateboard. I knew it wasn’t likely I’d go pro, and yes, I know it isn’t likely this little kid in Odell will make it to the big stage.

But having that dream got me so stoked as a kid, even if I knew it was unlikely. It was valuable. Nowadays I have different Big Dumb Goals that I set for myself just to keep me from settling into inertia.

It breaks my heart that I can’t remember that little kid’s name. Even if I do see him on TV in a few years, I wouldn’t recognize him. I just know that I’ll always be rooting for him, not just to make it to the pros, but to keep that ambition, despite his circumstances.

I returned to Odell a year later in 2015 for a second tour of the Northern Tier. It was a similarly hot day, my legs were similarly drained, and we stayed at the same park. I held out hope we’d run into the kid, but I never saw him. I want to believe he was out riding.

Writer, cyclist, often at the same time.

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