Muscatine was a fairly large city to arrive in after days of corn and soy fields. My host there, Jeanne, was an animal nutritionist and cyclist, and best of all, she was a lot of fun to talk with and a great friend of Petunia’s. She even had a refrigerator for cyclists that was stocked with beer, clearly knowing her touring fanbase. She told me stories about her awesome grandma, about lessons learned from cycling, and we indulged in some Italian food with the pasta needed to fuel me for the next day.
I didn’t get a pic of Jeanne– such a bummer, but some of the best times I’ve had have been the ones where I live in the moment and not behind the camera– but I got a pic of her sweet cycling clock in the travelers’ den!
And the day after that was a hot misery indeed, made more difficult by the stifling humidity. My morning was spent jetting to the bike shop in town to have a squeak diagnosed, where I learned I was over-lubricating my chain a bit, but of course, the noise didn’t happen while I was there, so the mechanic shrugged and said it was not terminal. Then I headed to the library to get some work done for my job with Evaluation Services. This all took a few hours, and I didn’t leave the town until mid-day with the heat beaming down on us viciously. The road was flat, but the sweltering 90-something degrees heat plus the high humidity proved to be too much, and when we reached the small town of Wilton, just about 20 miles away through miles of fields, my brain was already scanning the area for a shady shelter. At an intersection of two country roads, I saw a plain-sided and functionally roofed manufacuring building, and I stopped over when I saw a guy headed towards his truck in the parking lot. There was a modicum of shade between the two main buildings, and trying to stay distant enough to avoid sharing my workout stank, I asked the employee if I could throw down my small tent and camp out for the night, even though it was still kind of early. He said it wouldn’t be a problem, so I posted up the tent in the crevice and laid out for a little bit with Tunes, drinking water and making a few phone calls. My dad told me I’d missed a tornado in Illinois and that flooding in southern Iowa was happening, but luckily I’d remained one step ahead of any natural disasters.
After a light supper of granola bars and trail mix for me and Petunia having her usual dog food stew, I went to the side of the building where the worker had informed me there was a spigot, and I had an ersatz shower beside the cornfield at sunset. The water was almost hot, and it ran warm during my entire cleanse. Having washed up, I played with Tunes and we tucked into the tent early. Suddenly, I heard the high speed of heavy metal train cars and a loud WHOOOOOO WHOOOOOOO that shook the ground. Just across the street was an active train track, it turned out. In both of my tours, I’ve somehow had a knack for accidentally finding camping next to these noisy monstrosities. That night was no exception, with long, loud trains bellowing nearby at midnight and three AM. But between their late-night wake up calls, something interrupted my slumber that made me sit up at full alert. I thought I’d heard a man’s voice say the words “the truck,” and I held my breath, listening in the dark for voices or footsteps. Maybe it was just a dream, I thought, releasing my grip on the can of mace a bit. But when I permitted myself to breathe again, the acrid smell of cigarette smoke scorched my nose and lungs. It was so strong, it was like someone had just lit up in the tent. The workers had set up a metal do-not-enter bar barricade when they left, and so I didn’t think anyone would’ve just driven in, and I imagined I would’ve heard it if they had come through. It was about 1 o’clock in the morning, and the sense that I’d heard a voice and smelled this smoke, the latter certainly evidence of some other human presence, made me a little creeped out. I opened the tent door, quietly stepping out and walking to the front of the building. No one, and just the pickup truck that had been there all night anyway. I cleared my throat and said sternly, “Hello? Who’s there?” but only silence echoed up toward a star-covered sky. I left the tent door open, airing it out a bit, and convinced myself that either someone had just passed by and was now gone or the alien smoke had somehow come from a passing car. I fell asleep with my finger on the safety cap of the mace, and caught an hour of shut-eye before the next train roared through and rattled me out of REM sleep.
I was all too happy to get out of there when the sun and the birds woke me up, although Petunia looked pretty sleepy. The company guys were early birds too, and they were showing up for the job just as I was rolling out, and I thanked them for letting me crash, not mentioning the midnight mystery. Iowa got hilly, and I felt grateful for this after three flat states that left me wondering whether I’d lost the muscles needed to take on the big climbs once I got out west. It was definitely getting hot again, but not quite as oppressively humid. My little radio picked up a classical music station, and so I pedaled with a feeling of elegance through glittering green fields of corn and past quaint farm houses. A road sign said “bridge out, 6 miles,” but offered no detour information, so I cruised onward.
When I got to the bottom of the hill 6 miles on, though, I saw that this was really the case. I walked around the orange barricade and assessed my options. A huge, muddy trench stood between me and the 2 mile distance to my next town. I didn’t want to risk dragging the bike and gear through the muck, so I went back up the hill and pulled out my phone’s GPS. Another road bent around out of the way but into town and back on route, but I could see it was all gravel. The only other route was a significant distance backtracking plus some busier state road riding. The gravel was bumpy and I had to let the bike twist and sway over rocks, dodging the ones that looked more tire-damaging, and although it seemed perilous in a few places, we made it into the next tiny town. They had a small market, so I bought some yogurt and berries and we had lunch in the town park. Petunia got to play fetch with her tennis ball, running herself to exhaustion, and drinking a lot of water. Sadly, the tennis ball got left behind, making it the second one we’ve gone through ono this trip, but she still had her squeaky racoon toy.
After some big rolling hills and a long sweaty day, we had a few stretches of retch-worthy hog-stink to pass as we raced past the pig farms and into Cascade, Iowa.
The map said city park camping was permitted, so I touched base with the local PD to confirm I was there, got a shower at the town swimming pool that brought back happy memories of my younger days as a lifeguard or on the swimteam at my own hometown pool, and made my way to the park. A huge crowd was there, though, and a few locals told me that a popular local baseball team was playing. “It’s a double-header, too, so it’ll be noisy until about 10:30 tonight,” one sportsfan told me. I felt weary after not getting much sleep the night before and riding over 70 miles in the heat, and a little lightheaded. A few people told me about their local supper club that had affordable dinner specials, so I went in to grab a sandwich to go that didn’t involve peanut butter. A few locals eating and drinking around the bar talked to me as I waited and kept an eye on Tunes through the window. One kind older couple heard of my plan to tent camp in the park and they too mentioned the late night noise that was likely. Kay and Joe then offered to let me stay at their place. “Can the dog stay in the garage?” she asked, and I hesitated, instead offering to just camp out in their yard if that was a nice quiet place, and she reconsidered. “Well, if she’s housebroken and well behaved, I guess it won’t be a problem. You should both sleep indoors in our guest bedroom.” What a kind offer! Kay and Joe, a retired couple native to the area, were sweet as can be, and Kay even volunteered to massage a sore muscle spot on my neck, saying that she missed her calling and should have been a massage therapist healer (and I concurred with this after the tension in my shoulder disappeared). We talked for a while about my travels and Petunia demonstrated some of her party tricks and that she was well-mannered, and then we passed out by 9 PM. I couldn’t have had better luck, and I really needed the sleep.
And oh boy, did I sleep. Around 6 the next morning, I was up and packing, but not before my hosts generously shared their breakfast with me: a granola cereal and toast with jam treat. I bid them goodbye, as Joe was off to church and Kay to an aquatic exercise class, and on the road again I went, well-rested and making good time. In a small town of Colesburg, I refilled water bottles in a tavern and took the barkeep’s advice to reroute toward the river instead of cutting inland as the map described, saving a lot of miles. He warned there would be a steep hill to climb, but he said there was a bike path involved, which sounded good to me, and I was feeling up for some adventure.
After some big hills and one scary, screaming descent that ended with lane-wide rumble strips that threatened to shake me off my rig, I made it to Guttenburg, and decided to be more wary of route advice dispensed by non-cyclists. I followed a road right on the Mississippi River, and was having a hard time locating this supposed bike path. I stopped to ask directions at an RV park, but no one was sure about the route. As I was about to keep looking around, a man in a truck pulled up and asked if he could talk for a minute. “Sure, what’s up?” I asked casually, as if I wasn’t a strange sight.
Mike was a recent bicycle tourist himself, having recently done a group trip in Washington state, where I was headed. He fondly recalled some touring memories, complimented my setup, and asked to take a photo of Tunes for his bicycle buddies. Not an unusual request, I obliged and gave him my card, and asked him about the bike route. Handily, he knew exactly where to send me and described the directions (it wasn’t a designated bike path afterall, just a road ride cyclists use). “I know it’s kind of early and you might be wanting to push on,” he said, “but you’re welcome to stay at my vacation rental property tonight if you want. I don’t have people coming in until tomorrow, and my housekeeper Julie is there just finishing up. I’ve gotta work on my plane in the hangar so I won’t be in your way.” I looked at my bike clock and saw that it was still fairly early in the afternoon, and though I’d already done about 50 miles, I felt I still had some fight left in me. “Hmmm,” I said, looking around the bend in the road towards my unknown destination for the night. “You might change your mind when you see the place,” he laughed, adding that I could just stop by for water if I wanted and to show Tunes to dog-lover Julie. I followed his truck to a large river-facing home with a cozy-looking porch and many windows. A neighbor was outside and I introduced myself before we headed in. Mike was right– the house was luxurious and beautiful, and Julie was a very sweet woman and asked about my travels, plus warned me about a pugnacious pitbull who lived nextdoor. “I’m not at all against pitbulls, most of them are good, but this one is mean and I don’t trust it. Just letting you know,” she said softly as she scratched Petunia gently behind her ear. I got a good vibe from the place and the people, and decided to do some bike cleanup and have an easy day. Mike had quite a collection of road bikes and tandems in the garage for his guests, and he offered to let me take them for a spin. “Not that you want to ride a bike on your day off, but you’re welcome to.” I’d never ridden a road bike, I said sort of sheepishly, and took a Lightspeed out for a joyride while Tunes made herself at home on a couch. That thing was FAST– I zoomed down the river road, effortlessly flying down sidestreets and enjoying the flight of freedom.
I’d pulled over to take some photos of some local bike art when a young woman approached and asked if I needed help finding anything in town. I told her I was just out exploring, and she told me about a free self-defense class for women that was happening that evening at the local karate studio. What luck! I told her to count me in. I brought the bike back, fed Tunes dinner, and went to check this class out. Although some of it was a refresher for me, I did pick up a few new skills and tips and got to practice them with a karate student, so it was a fun little diversion.
Back at the vacation house, the retired pilot Mike offered to take me to dinner, so out we went again and shared touring tales, photos, and a couple of beers in a little restaurant, where I again saw the young woman I ran into earlier. Guttenburg must be really tiny. Our conversation somehow led to my psychology and women’s studies degree, and he was interested so we got academic for a little bit and I dropped some gender and sexual orientation concepts (thinking beyond the binaries!) on him, hopefully making my UConn professors proud.
We capped off the night with a listening party, picking through his record collection. It got late and so I made my way to sleep in a modern monochromatic guest room, careful not to disturb the immaculate condition of the room Julie had cleaned earlier. Of all the twists and turns and different paths on this journey, those few days had certainly been an unusual pleasure. By leaving myself open to possibilities and taking my time, enjoying the ride, I felt I’d helped create the opportunity for many of these fortunate happenings, but I’d also been so randomly lucky that it was almost surreal.
Song of the day: Cat Stevens – Miles From Nowhere