Twenty-eight years ago, my wife and I did a cross-country bike tour. We kept friends and family apprised of our exploits via email, which was a new technology then, and a very slow one over my external 2400 baud modem. Still, I managed a decent chronicle of our exploits and offer some highlights for you here. (For my previous installment click here.)
Resting in the Midwest – July 12, 1994
TURIN, IOWA: We’re stopped here for a few days, on Erin’s great-aunt’s soybean farm. She has three sons—Terry, Jimmy, and Johnny—who live nearby. Addah, the great-aunt, is in her eighties and therefore doesn’t cook anymore, but her sons see to it that we get to the local restaurants, where we eat “beef … it’s what’s for dinner.” (Have you seen that ad campaign?) Yesterday, Jimmy, who is a cattle buyer by trade, took us to lunch and I had a steak sandwich. He asked me what my favorite cut of steak is. I’d never really thought about it, but was apparently expected to have a strong opinion and a ready answer, so I decided on the spot that my favorite is prime rib, and said so. Well, that evening we went out for dinner and Terry, Jimmy’s brother, said to me first thing, “Well, I’m really sorry Dana, but they only serve prime rib here on weekends.” This means the two brothers had discussed my tastes sometime during the afternoon: so you can see how seriously they take their beef. I hope they approve of my preference. (By the way, if it strikes you as odd that they’d naturally assume I’d have a steak for dinner after having a steak sandwich for lunch earlier that day, you’re not alone. But of course I did.)
Since Topeka, when I last emailed, we rode north through the rest of Kansas to Nebraska, which was unbearably hot and sticky. We were in a bar cooling off with some iced tea and one of the locals told us it was 93 degrees with like 70% humidity. I should mention that everybody in bars loves us, and they’re all really friendly. At one place the locals bought us drinks—Bubble Up and Squirt (two soft drinks I remember from the ‘70s but never dreamed still existed). We even went into a biker bar in Gypsum, Kansas, a long line of Harley Davidsons out front, and most of the patrons were old men—”the old retired men’s biker club,” they told us. The proprietor himself was a biker—huge, with long hair and a beard, very jolly. He was cooking burgers on a little hot-plate. (We picked up a book of matches embossed with “Gypsum Bar – Cold Beer, Greasy Food, & Grouchy Service.”) All the guys came outside with us when we left—”We wanna take a look at yer hogs,” they declared. We’re like their skinnier, non-motorized brethren of the road.
In Nebraska we were eaten alive by mosquitoes, horseflies, and chiggers. I hadn’t heard of chiggers but my American Heritage Dictionary for DOS tells me a chigger is “any of various small, six-legged larvae of mites of the family Trombiculidae, parasitic on insects, humans, and other vertebrates. The chigger’s bite produces a wheal that is usually accompanied by severe itching. Also called chigoe, harvest bug, harvest mite, jigger, red bug.”
The more useful definition came from a neighboring camper: “You know that movie ‘Alien’ where the alien takes over the guy’s body and then bursts out of his stomach at the dinner table? Same thing, but smaller.” We hope he was kidding. Between these suckers and the mosquitoes and horseflies, I think when we’re done touring I'm going to become a career exterminator.
After Nebraska, we crossed a bridge over the Missouri river—the fastest navigable river in the world—and we were in Missouri. All the locals pronounce it “Missoureh.” It took us about half a day to get through the state (since we only cut through a corner of it). We encountered rude drivers, no shoulder, obscenely hilly terrain, and a headwind. We realize that a 20-mile section of Missouri on one highway on one day is not a representative sample of the state, so we will withhold judgment. But I must tell you about one incident that occurred there.
We were in a gas station/convenience store buying ice cream novelties, and I had to call my eye doctor to order a replacement contact lens (one blew away on a horrible Nebraska morning when my entire body was itching). The pay phone was severely malfunctioning—instead of prompting me for my calling card number, it was connecting me immediately, which I initially thought was a happy mistake. But it would only connect for a few seconds, long enough to begin talking, before realizing its mistake and hanging up on me. All the 10-ATT-0 tricks were failing to work. And the whole time, I was aware of an absolutely heinous odor that was slowly enveloping me. I thought I would pass out. It was as though rotting feces were being shoved up my nose and blown through my nasal passages with a hair dryer. I finally realized that the smell was the fellow behind me waiting to use the phone. He is without a doubt the smelliest human I have ever encountered. Eventually the odor became too much for me and I abandoned my phone call, letting him go first.
The moment he left the store, the clerks—without a word—picked up cans of aerosol air freshener from under the counter and began hosing the place down. They did it with a certain perfunctoriness, which I asked about, and they said this was a daily ritual. The fellow has a job hauling away dead livestock, roadkill, and other festering animal corpses, and every day he checks in with his boss using their phone. Can you imagine a more wretched career?
The second we entered Iowa, still on a shoulder-less road, still on a hilly stretch, still with a headwind, things improved. The first car that passed us slowed way down, gave us all kinds of room, and the driver grinned from ear to ear and gave us the thumbs-up for about half a mile. Iowa plates. Everybody in Iowa seems fanatical about bicycles. Iowa calls itself the premier bicycle state in the nation, and everybody I’ve encountered here knows what the RAGBRAI is. (It’s the Iowa Register [local newspaper] Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.) We’re following the route of this ride, which has 10,000 riders annually (and turns down countless others who lose out in the lottery-style registration). [RAGBRAI is “the oldest, largest, and longest multi-day bicycle touring event in the world.” The 2022 edition just so happens to have wrapped up yesterday.]
The night we rode into our first Iowa town, that of Shenandoah, we were so exhausted and fed-up with bug bites, we bit the bullet and stayed at a motel. We asked the proprietor about alternate highways to the one we were on, and he told us about a special bike trail they were building out of an old railroad track. The trail is called the Wabash Trace Trail, and here’s how they built it: they found an old railroad track that cuts its way through a thick growth of trees, and they pulled up the tracks and the ties and everything, leaving only the coal and cinder bed on which the tracks were initially built. Then, they scraped off all the coal and cinder, leaving only the bare ground. This ground would soon be overgrown with grass and bushes and whatnot, and eventually trees, if left alone, so they poured crushed limestone all over it. Then the limestone is rolled flat and packed down, and then you have an excellent and durable surface, the construction of which doesn’t disturb the ecology of the area, and which is cheap and does not require servicing. [This was part of a whole movement, we later learned, called Rails to Trails.]
The only problem was that the trail wasn’t done yet, so we got the name of the person involved with the Shenandoah leg of to see if it’s even rideable. This guy, Bill, is the owner of a café built out of an old railroad depot in town, called the Depot Deli. After sleeping in at the motel (a rare treat) we headed over to the Depot for lunch. We had no idea we were entering a cycling, and Everly Brothers, mecca. I don’t really know who the Everly Brothers are, other than their being musicians. Turns out they came from Shenandoah, and Bill knew them and described to us a big blowout concert here years back. He really did mean blowout—a tremendous windstorm kicked up during their finale, and “blew everything and everyone quite literally away,” he said. That kind of thing evidently happens here in the Midwest.
Anyway, mere seconds after we’d sat down at the Depot Deli, some guy ran up to our table and said, “Cyclists! Wow! Where are you headed?” He sat down in our booth and began talking to us, telling us all about the rides in the area, how many cyclists come through, how many he puts up, etc., and invited us to go to his farmhouse for a couple of days to eat steak and drink beer. (We politely declined.) Several other locals wandered over, including a grease monkey in a jumpsuit, whom we’d seen the previous evening on the road (he’d pulled his truck over, leaned out the window, and asked if we needed anything). We all got to talking, and pretty soon the grease monkey sent his son out to drive 10 miles home, get us an Iowa cycling map, and come back with it. We ended up staying in the café for two hours, and learned all about the Trace Trail, its origin, its level of completion, Iowa cycling, and Iowa in general. The first fellow bought us our lunch, and we left completely refreshed, informed, and stoked.
The trail was incomplete for about 15 miles or so; we rode it anyway since we’re on mountain bikes, after all. Much of it was in the pre-limestone phase, so we were riding through native grasses up to 2 feet tall, on a flat smooth surface we had to assume existed beneath. (It was like riding on the bike path in Boulder in the winter in a foot of snow, where you assume you’re indeed still on the path, not over some field or stream.) Huge trees lined either side of us, shading us completely and often hanging over the trail and making a tunnel that we rode through. We call it the Indiana Jones section of the tour. It was all fun and games until we got to an old bridge that was far from complete.
It was a long, long way down. Erin crawled over the bridge on her hands and knees, which only took slightly less time than me wheeling our much-laden bicycles, one at a time, over its tire-wide steel frame. But we made it.
Drying out upstate – August 14, 1994
ROCHESTER, NY: A couple nights ago it rained all night and our gear got soaked. In the morning the rain finally quit and we’d just finished airing out the rain fly, and were airing out our sleeping bags (which we do by laying them on the tent so the sun) when the rain started up again. We had to put the sleeping bags back in the tent, and the rain fly back on it, while we packed the rest of our gear (which takes about 45 minutes). We ended up setting off with a packed-up tent that was dripping wet. Too much of that and we’ll get mold on the tent, after which it won’t be waterproof anymore.
Since I last corresponded, we’ve been through the rest of Michigan, which was, actually, the only state where we’ve had consistent trouble being cyclists. The upper peninsula was nice, with a fairly reliable shoulder; only occasionally did we have to ditch off the side because of a giant RV towing a boat. Mackinac Island, which we reached by ferry, was quite touristy and expensive, but we had a good time. The lower peninsula, which tends to be more industrial, was awful. The small highways had the same traffic volume that a gorgeous California freeway would—but no shoulder. Meanwhile, the motorists seem to hate us on sight and gave us no room, often laying on the horn just to let us know we weren’t welcome. At one point we pulled over the try to splice our frazzled nerve endings, and when it was time to start pedaling again, I couldn’t get Erin to move. She just stood there, straddling her bike, staring off into space as if her mind had been sucked out by cable TV. Finally we found a smaller road, not caring where it went or even what direction. The county roads in Michigan are populated by terminally psychotic old bastards who would squeeze by us with inches to spare, and then cut in front of us. I refrained from making obscene gestures only out of fear that they were packing heat.
Finally we left Michigan, hitching a ride in a pickup truck over the (non-bike-friendly) bridge into Sarnia, Canada. The border guards took away our hot pepper spray at customs, since it’s illegal nationwide. Sarnia is a pretty big town, and looks exactly like the U.S. It has all the same fast-food chains, K-Marts, etc. Very pretty place though, and it seems more safety-oriented than the U.S., even. There are signs warning cyclists about the danger of riding over railroad tracks; signs on the road warning that a school bus turns here; etc.
Our first campground was a KOA, which cost $18 Canadian, which is actually a deal because the US dollar is worth $1.37 there right now. A deal for a KOA, that is, but of course a rip-off by any other measure. The second campground, also private, was worse—$18 for a little plot on the side of a hill, sandwiched between a jerry-rigged outhouse and an RV. We were the only tent in the place. It was actually the most amazing campground I’ve ever seen—a trailer park, really, with mostly permanent residents. All kinds of trailers shoved together, with dirt roads between them bearing names like 5th St. and Park Ave. As we rode through, we saw all kinds of corrugated steel awnings and porches built onto these vehicles. One had a mural of the Simpsons. One place had an actual wooden house constructed around this trailer, completely encasing it. The outer wall of the trailer was the inner wall of this family’s living room, with a picture hanging from it and everything! I wonder if the trailer could still be driven away in an emergency, forcefully, dragging the living room carpet with it, like a James Bond style escape pod. Amazing. The campground was basically a shantytown.
After that, we stayed in provincial parks exclusively. These are the finest campgrounds I’ve ever stayed at. The first one had giant, perfectly flat tent sites that were sectioned off by trees and bushes. The shower and bathrooms are cleaned four times a day, and are immaculate. Instead of being coin-operated—which invariably leads to groping for quarters with soapy hands, shampooed hair, and lathered face—these ones have a photocell in the wall. To turn on the shower, you simply pass your hand over it, and water of the most pleasant temperature cascades over you magically. Everybody is pleasant and patient, and even the mosquitoes are more tame. They wait for you, holding perfectly still, so that you can swat them easily. And they would never bite you. It’s not in their nature. Okay, I’m exaggerating here, but really, Canada has great campgrounds.
Most of the scenery we encountered in Ontario was tobacco fields. We asked a clerk in a store if it was a big industry, and she lamented, “It used to be, before the government came in and ruined everything, eh?” Perhaps she’s referring to the splendid warning labels on the cigarette packs. Instead of being in fine print, in a little box, they’re in a huge font, right on the front of the pack, just below the brand name. Here are a few of them: “Smoking shortens your life expectancy.” “Smoking can kill you.” “Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer.” “Smoking is a leading cause of heart failure.” “Smoking causes cancer in exposed non-smokers.” “Pregnant smokers give birth to extra-terrestrial lizards with weak chins.” Okay, I exaggerated a bit on the last one.
We stayed in a youth hostel for two nights in Niagara, home of the giant waterfalls. I had no idea what to expect, but it really is impressive. The water falls so violently that an incredible mist rises up past the height of the falls, like steam. Looking down, I was amazed to see a boat down there, practically right beneath the crashing water, rocking from side to side. The scores of passengers were clad in shiny blue hooded jackets. This was one of the Maid of the Mist boat tours. I wondered how much it cost: $20? $100? It seemed like such a privilege to be taken into such peril, your fate in the hands of the expert skipper. We took the tour, for $9, and it really was breathtaking. I fought hard to get some photos without drenching my camera in the spray. No photo could do justice to the panorama of crashing water and spray all around us. I ended up getting my hair drenched, and the camera strap, camera case strap, and binoculars strap all twisted and tangled together. We were at the very front of the boat and it was like being in a Spielberg movie. Rockin’ good time.
We’re in a motel now in Rochester, New York, which we got to after a long, hard, rainy day yesterday. We hung up our wet gear, laid out our sleeping bags, turned the heater up to 90 degrees, and left for a few hours. When we returned, our room was a sauna and everything much drier. I fear our tent is getting moldy, because the floor near its foot leaking badly now, and the leaking section seems to be moving towards the head of the tent. We’ll have to make that the foot from now on.