Days 29-36: Struggling through the Quad Cities, Iowa City, and Des Moines

It’s been a bit since I checked in, and there are a few reasons for it. First, it’s very time consuming to keep this blog up daily, and I’ve had some long days on the bike. A close second is that it kills my phone’s battery, and I desperately need the juice for navigation, communication, and music while riding. Also, I’ve been going through areas with very poor cell signals and even less wifi.

There are reasons that are less practical, and a little less positive, as well. I’m not necessarily riding through the most exciting part of the country right now, and just a month in, my personal excitement is matching it. A lot of the days in the last week or so have been devoid of “ooo, that’ll be good for the blog” moments. Most days have been long, hard slogs through heat verging on unbearable through a lot of monotony, be it farmland or countryside. In all honesty I haven’t been having a lot of fun in the saddle. While the last thing I feel like what I’m doing is working, a lot of the days are filled with the indifference and joylessness one might feel on the freeway in the morning getting to a 9-5 gig… And those are the good moments, of which there haven’t been many. Much more than I’d like I’ve been lost in my head with the loneliness wearing me down far more than it already has while I endure ceaseless suffering, baking in the unshaded sun on empty country roads and underused trails. Making it worse is that I haven’t been talking to a lot of locals because there haven’t been many I’ve come across. A few times my experiences kill the stereotype of small town kindness as I’m viewed as a weirdo to be weary of… Or at least I feel that way. There are exceptions, but not a lot.

I haven’t been taking as many pictures because not a lot grabs me. But there are some:

There was plenty of time off pavement on my way to the Mississippi River… Which was coupled with rain. 

So much so that the powers that be closed the trail because of high water. I went through it anyway and guess what? No high water. It wouldn’t be the last time I laughed off warnings and closures and made it through a blocked-off trail without a problem. 

The night after the ghost town campground I stayed at Starved Rock State Park, which I learned from Kaitie in Chicago and others is kind of the go-to place for Chicago’s outdoorsy types. 

It was full of natural surprises:

…and gravel roads to get to the campground. 

It was only a few miles till I was back on pavement, with a message I still don’t get:

The next morning I headed west on a two-day ride along the Hennepin Canal Parkway Trail to the Quad Cities:

I had to get off it in parts, like when I went through Peru:

And more gravel roads. 

I didn’t like it but it was practice for the roads into Iowa City a few days later. 

The Hennepin Canal trail was long, isolated, and not always rideable. 

I thought more than once that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources needs to get its act together given my experience at Des Plaines coming out of Chicago and the Hennepin. There were plenty of times I was riding on grass:

And then another trail closure. 

That got more insistent with its signage. 

Erosion was an issue, but cyclists have found a way, if you look to the right.

I spent the next night in Annawan, IL, at a hotel. I made it there late in the day exhausted from wind that slowed me down and made me work harder. I was told by multiple sources there was camping along the trail there, which there wasn’t, at least that I could find. The heat was seriously picking up at this point so I chose to think of the AC as a silver lining to a very expensive night inside. 

The next day I finished the Hennepin on the way into the Quad Cities and the Mississippi River, and I made a new friend! I met April online talking about the Grateful Dead, and it turned out she lived in Moline along the river. We met where she works at Bent River Brewing Company. It was great to have an actual conversation with someone that lasted longer than a few minutes, and the beer was fantastic and refreshing after all the heat I’ve been through. 

We hung out there close to nightfall, so she offered to drive me to my campground across the river. I was just fine by this, because at this point, cars are a novelty. But we didn’t leave before documenting my making it to the Mississippi:

It was a great feeling making it there, especially considering it was on 6/11/2016, exactly one month since I got off the train at Penn Station in New York City.

After that I was in Iowa, the first state I’ve never previously been to on the tour. The stop for the night was Iowa City, where I’d stay for a rest day before pushing west. 

The road to Iowa City was a mixed bag. At times it was great riding:

But then I had no shoulder around Wilton:

And then I was on gravel through farmland:

This is also where I got a taste of the Iowa hills, but they weren’t nearly as unbearable as they’d be coming into Des Moines. 

My hosts in Iowa City were Andrew and Brian, friends of a guy I contacted through Warmshowers. They’re both grad students at the University of Iowa, and while they had never put someone like me up before, they were great to stay with. They fed me well and were a blast to talk to about life and current affairs. Having so many brief, similar conversations at gas stations on the road has made me really appreciate conversations with depth. Andrew completely killed me in chess, which was humbling, but absolutely refreshing at the same time. 

My rest day in Iowa City was something of a low point, and while the city surprised me with its beauty and progressive, artsy vibe, I didn’t take any pictures. It was just a time for me to lay low for the most part. 

My front left pannier was a problem again after all the trouble in Philadelphia. I don’t know how it happened, but I blame the brutal gravel coming into the city:

I went to Geoff’s Bike and Ski, and they were able to fix it for free. Again, a bike shop that took care of me. 

The only picture I took in Iowa City was of a crowd getting ready for Stephen King, who I guess was going to do a talk or something. This was in the morning, hours before the doors were set to open. I don’t really get it. Surely these people had tickets… Why not come when the doors open?

That night we grilled out and had a bonfire, which kind of kept the mosquitoes at bay, but not really. Even in the oppressive heat there’s never anything bad about a bonfire, shooting the breeze over a couple beers. 

Because of the heat I wanted to get going very early, and the guys insisted on waking up well before they usually do to see me off. It was a bittersweet goodbye but I think we were all glad I came through. 

 

And then I was on the road to Montezuma, where I’d camp out at Diamond Lake. I knew immediately it was a smart move to start rolling around 6:30. The temps were far cooler, wind lighter, and I finished the day early in the afternoon. Plus, I only had a couple of the infamous steep hills that make Iowa a bear to ride through. 

Before I made it to Montezuma I stopped for a breather in Millersburg, which apparently wants me to live there (and also needs English teachers):

And then I was home free. Stopping early in the day is so much more refreshing than you might think, and I was rewarded by the best camping spot I’ve had since I started along Diamond Lake, where the sun set perfectly right in front of me in my hammock:

The serenity lasted only as long as the daylight though. Around 9pm flash thunderstorms pummeled the region, and while the rain was brief, it was very intense. Thankfully I was tucked safely in the tent for the night, but I didn’t get much sleep with the noise. 

The next day was one of the hardest I’ve ever had on a bike. 65 miles into Des Moines with 2300 feet of climbing and a heat index of 107. I tried to take pictures but they don’t do the brutality justice: 

It was nine hours of agony. My strength wore down and no matter how many breaks I took for water or food it was never enough. My mental game was the weakest since I started riding, and even though it was just yesterday, I can’t believe I made it through. I’m not doing a very good job of articulating it, but frankly, I don’t want to remember it all that much. 

The endless farmland was occasionally disrupted by the industry that supports it, like here in Prairie City:

Because of my dire condition I was a bit worried about coming into Des Moines to stay with Ben and his family. I always want to be good company to those that are gracious enough to host me for the night and I was so broken down I didn’t think it would be possible to be an entertaining guest.

As luck would have it, Ben was the perfect host for where I was yesterday. He could see the sheer exhaustion from the first handshake and knew exactly how to make me few relaxed. He ordered me to kick back and relax on the couch and I felt at ease immediately. He was super laid back with fun kids and a joy in hosting people, and while I was too beat to do a 180, I felt more like myself as the conversation meandered on. I had a blast talking to him about music, politics, and learning about Des Moines, which was another surprise. Despite the brutal terrain Iowa is crazy about bikes. I noticed it in Iowa City too, but talking to Ben made it clear how attuned the state and its Capitol are to the two wheeled crowd.  There are bike trails throughout the city that are more comprehensive than any I’ve seen (outside of a city like New York or DC) and a progressive edge that I didn’t expect. I started dozing early from exhaustion but pulled myself together enough to chat a bit with his wife Kim who came home late after going to the theater with friends. They made their beautiful home mine for the night, and I couldn’t have needed it more. I’m very lucky to have stayed with them.  

I left Des Moine this morning feeling strained muscles for the first time since my first week. The soreness is pervasive day after day, but I haven’t felt damaged muscles in weeks. The hills did me in yesterday and I wasn’t thrilled to get back on the bike. Little did I know I was beginning the easiest 50 miles I’ve ever had on a bicycle. 

Coming out of Des Moines I took the Raccoon River Valley Trail the whole way to Panora, IA, where I’m writing this from. It was off road, tree lined almost the whole way, and essentially flat. I cruised along without concern the whole day, and the trees were a gift…which provided an opportunity to get the closest photo of a deer I’ve ever had:

I’m resting now in my hammock at a wildlife preserve just outside of town, trying to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Spirits are higher, but it would be hard for them to be any lower after yesterday. Tomorrow is my last full day in Iowa, and after looking at the elevation profile with Ben last night, it looks like it’s going to be another doozy. I’m going to set the alarm for 4:30am and hope for calm winds into Prairie Rose State Park.

-J

6 thoughts on “Days 29-36: Struggling through the Quad Cities, Iowa City, and Des Moines

  1. Sounds like some tough times but you hang in there. I know you can do this. What an adventure. I do love reading about your travels and appreciate the time you put into this blog.

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  2. Hope next week is better for you. Was great to meet you in Montezuma & glad you enjoyed Diamond Lake, we sure think it is beautiful. Thanks for taking the time & battery to blog.

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  3. Keep on, SteadyJeff. There are more good people out there to meet, more trails to ride and hills to conquer (or schlep up as the case may be). Not all days will be great but they add o ou store of experiences.

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