Pre-ride day, getting organized--
My brother, Dave, is a veteran bike-camper rider, biking the USA as well as places around the world. I'm a wanna be biker and he has graciously agreed to let me try this, riding with him.
We flew into Madison, Wisconsin and stayed with his friend, Mary Kay. He flew from San Francisco and I flew in from Cape May. And shipped our bikes and camping gear from our homes. We spent a couple days with MK and met many of her 10 siblings. They all live within a couple miles of each other and are chicken and goat farmers, archers, hunters, buggy collectors, horse farmers, and a few other things. Wonderful, welcoming family!
Dave put our bikes back together and we were ready to roll. I took a deep breath and was ready to start pedaling; I must admit with a little anxiety over if I could really do 50+ miles of biking each day, bikes loaded with our gear, riding with some long, tall hills and camping at the end of the day.
The night before we started to bike, I spread everything out on the bed, AGAIN. I spent 4 hours going over and over what I had packed and was continuing to try to organize a couple weeks of traveling supplies, clothes, tools, bedding, electronics and a few art supplies, of course, into 2 bike panniers.
It's done. 2 bike bags all stuffed with a selection of various sizes of waterproof bags and hopefully all I will need . If it is with me, good; if I forgot something important...too bad, figure out how to get along without. Daunting, if you ask me. When one travels on a bicycle and camps, there is no turning back for something you forgot to pack. So don't forget! For example, how do you charge your phone when you are living in the woods...
Day 2 - We're riding, ready or not
Ok, enough prep, of which there was almost none. Family emergencies and art assignments prior to leaving left no time to practice riding with 25+ lbs of gear. I was about to figure it out as I road along. If you ever try this, have an experienced guide that has helpful ideas and a huge dose of patience. Kudos to my brother, Dave! He has both. The first day was mostly rolling hills with a couple long high hills. At least I never walked.
I was getting the idea. Beautiful rural landscapes, with intense greens everywhere. Wisconsin's corn and gorgeous green alfalfa interspersed together in fields that created great patterns. I would have stopped for more pictures, but I was quite far behind as it was.
Our first night on the road was spent at the home of Eric and Melinda. They are members of WARM SHOWERS, an online group that opens their homes to bikers and hikers. Such an awesome gift: warm showers, a bed to sleep in, and no mosquitoes. Thank you!!
Day 3 - High water, 9 inches of rain
Thankfully we were not riding in 9 inches of rain but we saw the flooded Wisconsin River as we rode along. Lots of hills, some steeper and longer than the day before, but I did not walk any of them. I seem to be getting stronger. At least it seems that way to me. Though Dave continues to have to wait quite often for me to catch up.
Looking for food supplies is an ongoing challenge. The previous night we found a grocery store so had eggs, bagels and apples and cheese for dinner and breakfast. Subway was lunch with ice cream for the last course. If you eat around 3:00, that covers lunch and dinner. We were running low on water so we stopped by a farmhouse and a sweet couple was happy to fill our water bottles. Life becomes very simple, AND enjoyable. Food, water, and a jacket when the wind is cool. Life is good.
Tonight we pitched our tents in a shelter house in a community park in Wauzeka, Wisconsin. Free accommodation, under a roof, with electric and bathrooms close by with hot and cold water. And as Dave gallantly pointed out, it even had a fireplace! We're live-in' large. He assured me the local authorities would not question our right to be there, and he was right. Sweet dreams.
Day 4 - Dave waits often for me to catch up
Dave is attempting to re-teach me to pedal and shift gears more efficiently, mostly so he doesn't have to wait so long for me to catch up...he's having some success.
Early afternoon we pedaled into McGregor, IA, a quaint town right along the Mississippi River with fresh catfish, a museum, numerous antique shops, and an old fashioned laundromat that still uses quarters and gets all your clothes dry for less than a dollarr!
At the edge of town we faced a GIANT hill that required a lower gear than I had on my bike, so I walked a couple blocks today. At the top of the "mountain" was a beautiful campground. We were ready to set up camp. Hot showers awaited.
A funny thing happened on the way to the camp bathrooms. Early evening, after I got showered and was feeling good as new, I headed back outside to the tent site. It was PITCH BLACK OUT. Ack! Didn't even have my phone with me. Rule one in campground life: carry a flashlight. Where was my tent ?
Joined some neighbors at their roaring fire, certainly felt toasty, grateful for the warmth and friendship around the fire. Shared a glass of wine, some conversation and off to bed, but not before I hung all my wet clothes on a line around the top of the inside of my tent. Even camping, a woman's work is never done.
During the night, ear plugs came in handy as some birds were having quite a prolonged conversation.
Day 5 - Let's make a deal
When you wake up to wet laundry of every piece of clothing you have hanging 16 inches above your head in your tent, you know it's a day to visit a laundromat. Dave, on the other hand, thought it a good day to cross back into Prairie du Chein to site see. Either option meant a long ride to the bottom of the GIANT hill and an even loooonger ride back up at the end of the day. The thought of clean dry underclothes won me over.
Pulling open the squeaking old wooden screened door to the laundromat was taking a step back in time. Nothing had changed inside since the 40's. The well worn writing on the dryer said deposit a quarter. 3 quarters later, less than a half hour, I had a pile of warm, deliciously dry clothes. Ahhh!
It threatened rain all day, and was much cooler, so we did what you do in a river town, we set out to find fresh catfish for lunch. Alas, they were all sold out.
Headed back across the Mississipi River, and rode until the scent of fried onions brought us to a standstill outside Petes hamburger stand. Even if you don't eat red meat fried in grease, you eat one of Pete's burgers. That's all they have sold since 1909. Just burgers, and they were the best!
Stopping for a few groceries we headed back UP the hill. Without all the gear on my bike made it doable, no "hiking" as Dave calls walking hills, made it to the top on 2 wheels.
Earlier in the day we had spent the morning trekking through the woods for a couple hours, sloshing through mud and clouds of mosquitoes and gnats to see promised magnificent views of the River. We did see the view, but due to the overcast skies, it was ok but less than "magnificent". Not really worth the mosquitoes and mud!
As I rode into our campsite at the end of the day, Dave informed me the "magnificent view" was just 2 blocks away at the end of the campground road. Really?!! I easily walked down the paved walkway and sure enough, there it was. As the sun set, the sky was magnificent.
Check out Dave's blog Davebikesiowa.wordpress.com
Day 6- The Rescue
When you are a novice bike-camper on the road, you learn something new everyday. Today I was introduced to BALANCE and WIND 101. And was reminded of how kind the people of Iowa are to perfect strangers.
The day started out with sunshine, hooray, the first time we'd seen it in 5 days. Also a stiff breeze. I had no idea of the terrain ahead as Dave was in charge of route decisions.
Our plans included a lunch stop at Guttenburg, IA, Mississippi River town. Flagging down a local we got recommendation of Rausch's Cafe. We made it just in time as they closed at 2:00. Easily the best French Toast to ever cross my lips. Light and delicious and $3.99. When I looked at the menu I knew I was in Iowa. Lunch for two was less than $13.00. That does not happen in San Francisco or Cape May!
As we headed out of town we were greeted with a giant hill. Steep and long. I pedaled up as far as I could and then "hiked" to the top.
Little did I know what lay ahead. The head wind was 20+mph and our road was hill after hill. Giant hill after giant hill. Every downhill promised a matching or bigger uphill. Try flying downhill, loaded with 30+ lbs of gear flying down behind you and in front of you and a 20 mph crosswind working to push me into the side of the "mountain". Bet you didn't know there are mountains in Iowa, The Eastern Rockies! It really was a constant balancing act. And a continuum of prayer!
The hills were incredibly steep, I had pushed my bike gear up 3 of them so far in this one day. We had arranged to be Warm Shower guests of Joe in Edgewood at 5pm. Very long story short, my brother could see I would never make it if I was going to push my bike and gear up each mountain. He flagged down a pick-up and 2 angels emerged, Kenny and Helen from Colesburg. They loaded my bike and gear into their truck and I was extremely grateful!!! Even more grateful as we drove the remaining 15 miles to Edgewood, the town past where they live, and I saw the constant hills and valleys I would have had to ride. I'd have gotten there at midnight, maybe.
Dave, the machine, finished up on his own and was there in an hour.
Joe had dinner for us, a comfy bed and warm shower, and I was asleep shortly after dinner.
A total of 5 people rearranged their day and evening to help get me to Joe's home safely. Thank you to Michele, Joe, Joan, Kenny and Helen-- the rescue team. I knew I was in Iowa.
Day 7- Brenda's 19,381 pies
Today the sun came out. That changes everything! Well not everything, we still had 20+mph headwinds. Tough to pedal and stay upright, but the colors everywhere popped! What a beautiful state I was born in. Riding across Iowa I again felt such admiration and gratefulness for farmers.
Within the first half hour I was so far behind that Dave loaded my tent, sleeping mat and sleeping bag onto his already overflowing bike. I don't know how he can pedal with all that weight. About 75lbs plus his 50lb bike. One strong man.
After he took half my gear, I was only about 3 miles behind rather than 4-6 miles. In one town he sat and watched a High School marching band have their entire street practice while he waited. A very patient man.
Mid morning as we pedaled into Strawberry Point. I stopped to take a picture of a big old farm house and a sweet older guy walked across the street and wanted to know all about our trip, and filled me in on the 45 year history of his house, and the town. And all the time I knew Dave was waiting ahead in the town.
I found him under the "biggest strawberry in the world" and in the cafe with the best rhubarb pie and ice cream in the world. When you bike, you eat whatever and whenever you are hungry or when you can find food. In some of these small towns that is a challenge. Brenda bakes the pies and has sold over 19,381!
As we left the cafe I noticed where we had randomly parked out bikes. I'm sure when Dave bikes with me, he feels like he has a handicap! He has certainly been a trooper about having me along!
By early afternoon we were ready to call it a day. Found a cafe in Fayette that catered to college kids. No customers were around yet so they fed us and let us sit for 2 1/2 hours and use their free wifi. We left with a pizza that would easily keep overnight in the 48degree temps. Breakfast and lunch.
Found a comfortable campground close by in the town park. Hot showers and bathrooms and electric. The ranger told us it had been under water 3 days before!
The wind made for a short day, only 30 miles total. Checking the wind forecast for tomorrow, looked like more of the same and with possibilities of 30 mph gusts in the afternoon. Usually early morning is calmer, we'll be heading out by 7:30am.
Day 8 - Baby it's cold out there
After yesterday's crushing wind we started out early in hopes of getting in most of our mileage before the wind took over. The skies were heavy with dark gray clouds that threatened rain most all day. The wind was 13 mph when we started pedaling. In our face but still not as forceful as the day before. Grateful. And no rain fell.
I decided to call this day: 50 Shades of Gray. I looked for patterns of gray and more grays. Without sunshine, colors mush, like mixing all the colors on the palette into one puddle. So...50 SHADES of gray. The temps remained chilly and I wore 4 layers of sweaters and jackets off an on all day.
Much of our ride today was on Hwy 218, busy with lots of long, zooming trucks whooshing by while I slogged along mushing into the wind and I hoped for an updraft to give me a little boost down the road.
As we pushed along the divided 4 lane highway, a woman drove up next to Dave and started chatting. Stopped her car right on the highway! Wanted to know all about our trip and wanted to come along...except for her husband at home. Dave suggested she move her car to the side of the road, whew! Glad she wasn't hit.
We improvised a campsite on top of a hill near a tiny dog park, Waverly Hill Park in Charles City. Pretty with trees and a shelter house that had bathrooms and electric. The "real" campground down the road was under water, looked unsupervised, and the showers required a combination. Just didn't seem like our kind of place.
Dave stopped at a free range farm and got six eggs for supper cooked over his tiny Big Joe camp stove (it's named something like that). Eggs were served with ketchup and pepper paks from Casey's and a shared bag of Carmel Corn! Delicious. Dave has been the sole cook and bottlewasher on the trip and I'm grateful. If I was cooking we would have had many midnight specials!
The low hanging blanket of clouds had been 50 shades of gray all day, but the day ended in a fiery blast of yellows and pinks. Spectacular!
Day 9 - Drinking in the sunshine
Bundled in two jackets and two shirts, headed out and drinking in the sunshine. Signs of the Iowa I know are starting to pop up as we get closer to where I grew up in Northwestern Iowa.
As we turn a corner, giant wind turbines are seen in the distance towering above the corn on the horizon as they churn out electricity. Considering the wind we have encountered the last few days, one can see why Iowa is an obvious place to erect these giants.
The signage along the roads is all about the election coming up. Sometimes the words say it all.
Heading into Rockford, we were looking for a cafe, but found so much more. Most little Iowa towns are super proud of their heritage and choose a way to celebrate and inform. They don't forget where they have come from.
Iowa is all about planting , growing, harvesting and distributing corn and soybeans and animal and poultry products. Railroads are still used extensively to move product. The elevators are huge storage facilities. See "tiny Dave" in the elevator photo.
As we pedaled, the wind was not so fierce today, still in our faces or pushing from the side but only about 12-15 mph. Big improvement. Or maybe we are just getting used to it.
Seeing the deer carcass stopped me instantly. We have lots of deer in Iowa, but I'd never seen the whole animal preserved so perfectly. Every bone was still exactly as it was the instant the deer's heart stopped beating. I thought it was exceptional, others of us were not as impressed... I think they are such gorgeous creatures and always feel bad when one gets hit by a car.
Still seeing lots of evidence of all the crazy rain and flooding. Makes for stunning sites but excessive standing water is not what farmers want as it takes a toll on crop yields.
The afternoon was filled with scenes I want to hold in my head and heart forever. Love my home state. They each remind me of the people of Iowa. Their hard work and connections to the land. Reminds me of why I so enjoying biking this state. It's hard work to pedal the route but my personal connection to rural Iowa has everything to do with all the emotions of growing up here. I love Iowa for the hardworking people and the wonder of watching seeds being planted each year and all the hope and expectation that each farmer believes a crop will grow and the faith behind that. People can only plant and harvest, God provides the growth.
Finished up the day at a State Park on Clear Lake. Most of the camping will be done soon as many parks close their showers, and facilities as the temps start to drop. Good we took our ride when we did. The cool weather has been perfect for bike camping. Glad we still have a couple days ahead, I don't want it to be over.
Day 10 - More sunshine and the wind has calmed
The sun was out. Hasn't happened often on this trip so we are loving the sun diamonds dancing on the lake as we pedaled by. The wind is calm so far.
Had our first flat tire on this trip. So glad it was Dave's and not mine. He would have had to fix either. But somehow I think it's easier if it's your own. We saw it as an opportunity to let the breeze dry out and freshen our gear in a tiny park next to the old church.
Kwik Stop pizza and Blue Bunny hot fudge bar was a perfect breakfast and left over cold pizza would be supper .
As Susie served up the hot pizza, she called out, "Don't burn your gizzard!" Susie really loved her Kwik stop job. And it showed. Made you feel welcome. Made her pizzas with lots of love. Delicious ! Even cold.
After breakfast we headed out onto Highway 18, with no road shoulder. A nail biter.
Stopped in Brit, the home of the Hobo Convention for "lunch" . Sign outside mentioned home made pies, that always gets Dave's attention. Coconut Cream, excellent.
We wanted to make it to Smith Lake Park to camp. That meant riding 25 miles more before sunset. The low cloud cover made it seem much later than 3:00pm. We took a road for 5 miles North to get off busy Hwy 18 as we were looking for a cross road that was paved with a shoulder. None, so we rode back to Hwy 18 and traffic. Riding as fast as I could uphill and down hill. Sky getting darker every minute, and me with no tail light. And mosquitoes getting thicker by the minute.
Finally made it to camp around 6:00pm, whew! First order of business is always taking cover from mosquitoes. Long pajama pants, high top socks, long sleeve shirts, gloves. Was setting up my tent in twilight. Hard to see with mosquito netting over my head.
It had been a long hard day of pushing pedals. The mosquitoes were fierce. And the sun was soon to set. We ate the 2 left over pieces of pizza and ramen noodles. Time for showers and getting into our tents.
Being 9 days into setting up my tent, I was surprised when I finally crawled in, dark by now, and unrolled my sleeping mat. Surprised, that one, there was a large hard lump under my sleeping bag, and two, my head was on the low end. Not funny. Rearranged everything. The air is cooling, nicely. Last night on the road. One more day to ride! And about 60 miles. Will try to soak in everything.
Last Day Biking Across Wisconsin and Iowa
Bittersweet, today's the last day of riding. I get to see my dear, sweet mom, and do laundry. But loved being outside 24/7. Loved the challenge of pushing harder when I thought there was nothing left. Loved getting along with basics, no frills. Made everything so simple. Loved watching the harvesting process. At the ride's start the vast seas of corn and soybeans looked fully grown, dried and ready to pick. By the end of the trip, the farmers were in the fields and the harvesting was underway.
Loved seeing my home state in a very intimate way, up close and very personal. Loved being able to eat whatever and whenever we could find food.
Mostly loved having time with my brother.
It's the type of trip that takes you away from everything that usually consumes all your time. And instead gives you everything that feeds your soul. I'll miss it.
START DAY 11
The weather is perfect. No wind yet at 8:30am. The campground at Smith Lake was beautiful and calm as we say goodbye and pedal away, when just 14 hours before I'd been frantically pedaling the last 25 miles to make sure we arrived before sundown.
This last morning on the road is easy riding. Hills are shallow and many and very rideable. And really, much more doable even in a higher gear than when I started the trip. Progress. About 60 more miles and we'll be "home", where mom lives and where Dave and I grew up.
Today's sights and names of towns are very familiar. Acres and acres of corn and soybeans, deep green pastures with smudges of dark brown and black cow shapes. Narrow streams cutting through the pastures reflecting blue gray as the sky is mostly overcast. Cool temps, perfect biking weather. We made it through the entire 10 days of biking without rain. Never did have to learn how to set up my tent in the rain. Grateful to leave that lesson till our next trip. Or the one after that.
We are trying to avoid riding Highway 18. No shoulder. Lots of trucks. Some move over, some do not. Who designs a highway without a paved shoulder??
Gravel roads come in a variety of squishy surfaces. Hard packed to loose chunky gravel. Our first one of the day is hard packed and easy to ride and takes us past an old farm with buildings overgrown with many years of uncut trees and bushes, and tall grasses. The photo ops were everywhere. So much history staring at us, made me wonder what stories are sandwiched between countless layers of red and white paint.
Other gravel roads were not so kind. We gritted our teeth and headed back to the trucks. There was a paved shoulder a few miles down the road. In Emmetsburg we had our last plate of French Toast. It's been great to be able eat all the extra goodies and know the calorie count would still be negative. Alas, all that changes tomorrow.
Soon we were pedaling by road signs to Terril, Ruthven, and as we turned off the highway toward Dickens we see a car pull over. Robin Carpenter, a childhood friend who attended a one room school house with Dave, is the first to recognize us and welcome us back to Clay County. This is Iowa. People drive by and know you!
The giant co-op elevators of Dickens dwarf Dave as he rides by. The elevator is the center of the town's commerce. All that harvested corn in the fields has to be stored somewhere before it gets shipped out by truck or train.
Also, Dickens has a tiny public library like so many of Iowa's tiny towns. Even in a town with tiny populations of 300- 700, there is a library.
Leaving Dickens we head for Spencer, 5 miles down the road.
We pedal quietly into Spencer, talking back and forth as we ride. "Remember this, remember that...When did they add a wing to the high school? Let's ride by Hardee's and see if they have biscuits."
Too late, that is only a breakfast item.
Before leaving town, we are spotted by another old friend, Gene Lovitt. We make plans to get together later in the week.
Wow, you really can come home again. I so appreciate those friendships.
Next stop and we are at mom's. So good to see her and another brother and his wife.
It's been quite an adventure. 470 miles.
One of the best parts is so many of you followed along and commented along the way.