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Possum on the Trail and Jesus on the Metro

Possum on the Trail and Jesus on the Metro

I volunteer one morning a month at the Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis.  I’ve been maintaining their website for several years and have been amazed at what this little school in East St. Louis is accomplishing. 100% of their graduates finish high school and 95% enroll in college.  Those are amazing numbers for that area.  I wanted to help!  So one Friday morning every month now I show up to do whatever they need me to do.  So far I’ve been sitting in with the second grade class helping them with games, spelling and math.  It’s been so much fun.  I just love these little kids!

It’s always been my intention to get there on my bicycle using the MetroLink.  The first two months were just too cold and icy to bike there.  But the weather forecast was 50° and sunny for my most recent visit two weeks ago so I was finally able to bike to the school.

The temperature was much colder, around 35° when I pedaled off that morning at 7:30am.  The closest MetroLink station, the North UMSL Station, is within three miles of my house. My plan was to bike there and take the MetroLink out to the Fairview Heights Station in Illinois, which is less than two miles away from Sister Thea Bowman School.  The school is a good distance away from where I live… my MetroLink journey would take 45 minutes.  But my entire bike ride would be less than five miles.  Not a bad commute at all!

It was a blustery, chilly bike ride down the hill from my house to the beginning of the Ted Jones Trail.  I don’t really like the downhill mile to the trailhead on busy Florissant Road.  Traffic wasn’t too terribly busy at 7:30 in the morning but I still stayed watchful for sleepy inattentive drivers. I’m sure the  motorists speeding to work were surprised to see little old lady me zipping down the road in my skirt, riding boots and Loap rain jacket.

I was oh so happy to reach the trailhead and say goodbye to the car traffic.  What an enjoyable quiet morning ride I had on the 2 and a half mile bike trail!  Of course I was the only crazy cyclist out on the trail at that hour and I relished the peaceful solitude.

As I pedaled along contentedly, deep in thought, I was a bit startled to see a possum ambling down the middle of the trail toward me.  He seemed to be deep in thought as well… maybe even humming a little tune to himself and he traipsed along enjoying the beautiful morning.  He obviously did not see me and continued along his merry little way, beady black eyes staring straight ahead.  Finally he noticed me when we were about four feet away from each other (he’s not a very observant little chap… better be more careful or he’s going to end up as somebody’s dinner).  His fuzzy white head jerked around, he fixed his beady eyes on me, stopped and raised one back foot and the opposite front foot simultaneously and paused in that position… ninja style.  I seriously thought I was getting ready to do some possum throw down on the trail that morning.  But the little guy turned away from me and scurried off the trail into the bushes.  That was a weird reaction.  Perhaps he was considering playing “possum” and then thought better of it.  What a funny little experience to start off my day.

A bad storm the night before left the trail cluttered with branches and my progress was slower than normal.  I was concerned that I might miss my train… I had only given myself 40 minutes to get there.  And just as I feared, the MetroLink was leaving the station as I turned off the trail to pedal over to the platform.  I shouldn’t have worried though.  A quick time check confirmed that it was the train BEFORE the one I was trying to catch.  Whew!  So I purchased my ticket and sat down to wait 15 minutes until the next train would arrive.

Three bicyclists are allowed to ride at a time on the St. Louis MetroLink.  Each train is actually two long train cars connected in the middle and there is room at the front and back of each one for a cyclist to stand with their bicycle.  No one is allowed in the front of the front car where the driver sits so that leaves three spaces per train.  I usually take the front of the second car.  For whatever reason, if there are any weirdos on the train, they sit in the back.  Craig usually takes the back when we’re traveling together and boy, does he relate some freaky stories.  I stay away from the back!

For a long train ride I slide my front tire in the space between the step and the driver’s door so that I can leave my bike standing alone and I can relax in a nearby seat.  So I did this and then engaged in 45 minutes of interesting people watching as we hurtled along the tracks to the East side.  All of the early morning passengers were on their way to work and most of them didn’t look too thrilled about it.  They appeared bored and fatigued… stone faced worker warriors in wrinkled clothes.  None of them enjoyed an exhilarating bike ride to the station that morning  or a potential possum throw down on the trail.  I sat in silence and wondered about their lives, their jobs, their dreams as they hustled on and off the train to their destinations.

The train was mostly empty when I finally reached the Fairview Heights Station and I wheeled my bike onto the platform.  Cold wind slapped me hard.  It was much windier and colder here than it was on the Missouri side.  Why would that be?  I wasn’t expecting it and should have added one more layer.

The school is actually less than a mile from the station.  The train passes right by.  But as is my way, I avoided the busier road most travelled in favor of winding my way through quiet neighborhood streets.  Not much happening at that time of day.  I only had the brutal wind to contend with.  A section of my route is along an outer road across a flat farm field and of course I was pedaling directly in to the wind.  Ouch!  Once again I worried that I would be late as I crawled along at 5mph.  But I don’t know why I worry; I pulled up in front of the school right on time.

It was another fun morning.  My little second graders were in charge of leading mass this week and they performed fantastically.  I was so proud!  They spotted me after the service and all ran over to give “Ms. Blue” a big hug.  Their teacher, Ms. Migella, divided up the class and we played board games for a while and then spent some time outside on the playground.  After recess I helped Larry with his “+ 3’s.”

All too soon it was time for them to head to the cafeteria for lunch and time for me to be on my way back home.  I wished them all goodbye, promised to be back next month and waved as they marched down the hallway to lunch.

I bundled back up and started down the road back to the Metro Station.  The wind had died down and the sun was warming up the day.  Happy joy!  I enjoyed a nice leisurely ride back to the train station.  I suppose this isn’t safest area to cycle through.  It is after all, East St. Louis, and has a very bad reputation.  But I’ve never felt in any danger here, not even tooling through the neighborhoods on my bicycle.  The houses are small but cared for.  The neighborhoods certainly aren’t fancy but they are homey.  As usual, I find that reputations are often exaggerated and I choose not to be afraid.

Back at the Fairview Heights Station I was surprised to see armed guards patrolling on the platform.  They hadn’t been there in the morning.  Okay maybe this isn’t the safest place to be after all.  There were some strange looking folks loitering in the parking lot.  But no one bothered me and I wheeled my bike up to the platform and waited for my train.  A woman exiting an eastbound train saw my bike and stopped to talk to me.  She said she wished she could commute to work by bike and respected what I was doing.  It was a nice little interaction.

I sat behind four older ladies on the train and after the train left the station one of them leaned over, tapped me on the arm, pointed at the rear view mirror attached to my glasses and asked me, “What is that thing for?”  She was delighted with my explanation and exclaimed to her friends that she wanted to get one too “just for laughs.”  I had a fun time talking with them.  It was one of the lady’s 60th birthday and they were celebrating with a day at the casinos.  They were having a grand old time and they hadn’t even gotten to the casino yet.   Wait until the slots started clanging and the booze started flowing.  I’m sure they were in for a rip-roaring hoopla that day… what a lively group they were!

I noticed a slouching sullen faced guy sitting in front of them who would turn around occasionally to add some little grumpy comment to our banter.  Everything he said was negative.  What a sourpuss!  I wondered what he was doing hanging out with these merry old ladies.  He was such a downer.

When we finally reached their stop, we bid each other a boisterous adieu and they bounced out the door and headed over to the casino.  Crabby man stayed in his seat and I realized that he wasn’t accompanying them after all.  He glared out the window for the rest of his trip.  When he finally got up to leave several stops later, he thrust something toward me as he passed by to leave the train.  “Read this when you get a chance,” he mumbled as he walked by.

After he left I looked down to see a little Christian tract with smiley faces and the four spiritual laws.  Really, dude?  I grew up in a strict evangelical denomination and I know the handing-out-tracts drill.  But c’mon, you gotta do a little more than shove a piece of paper at somebody and think you’re earning heaven brownie points.  What about investing in people?  Loving people?  Helping people?  Sorry but the “four spiritual laws” described on that tract seemed about as far away from Jesus as night from day.  I found the experience quite sad really and pondered it until I got to my station.

 I took no photos this time so you'll just have to enjoy this possum photo I found on the internet...

I took no photos this time so you’ll just have to enjoy this possum photo I found on the internet…

The day had gotten wonderfully warm by the time I wheeled off the platform and pedaled back home.  It had been quite an adventure and I’m looking forward to next time.  You just never know what’s going to happen or who you’re going to meet when you travel on a bicycle!



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