Another day, another chance to get rained on. Over breakfast, my host Mike and I discussed the day’s route and he warned me of the ridiculously steep climb out of Guttenburg, plus the rest of the day’s hills to come. The drizzle would continue on through the day, but the morning’s rain was forecasted to taper off by noon. I lingered for a while, debating whether I should take him up on his offer of driving my panniers to the top of the first mountain. I was slightly surprised by the hilliness of this part of the country, although the ACA map had mentioned the steep, rugged bluffs rising alongside the Mississippi River in the Driftless Area. From Wikipedia:
The Driftless Area or Paleozoic Plateau is a region in the American Midwest noted mainly for its deeply carved river valleys. While primarily in southwestern Wisconsin, it includes areas of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and extreme northwestern Illinois. The region includes elevations ranging from 603 to 1,719 feet (184 to 524 m) and covers an area of 16,203 square miles. The region’s peculiar terrain is the result of its having escaped glaciation in the last glacial period.
“After the rest of the hills you’re going to climb today, I think you’ll thank me, and you’ll think, ‘That Mike, what a good guy.'” Well, after sweating it out unencumbered to the top of the first hill, I thanked him for the gear transpo and told him that he was indeed a good guy. It was a pretty beastly mountain and I was happy for simply a challenging ride and not a knee-splitter.
I rode through the small towns in the misty fog, rolling slowly past an assortment of restaurants whose alluring smells nearly made me park and grub, but I pressed on and ate another peanut butter granola bar. During one stretch without any shoulder and two lanes of busy tourist traffic, I felt Petunia’s paw giving me a little poke on my butt, giving her signal for potty time. But there was nowhere to pull off and it would be unsafe to stop right there. I couldn’t see the next turn off ahead, either. “Hold on one minute, little cow,” I soothed her reassuringly, but I heard a low hnnngggg grunt in reply. “I know, but we can’t stop here, sorry.” I quickened my pace to a sprint so I could help her get some relief faster. Hnggg hnnnnnng, she moaned uncomfortably. Then I felt her shift her body to the side of the carrier, then the other, back and forth, swaying the bike a little bit. “I understand, but please don’t throw us into traffic, okay?” A mile or so down the road, there was finally a parking lot with a patch of grass, and she took just three steps and had quite a wee and water break. “Sorry, Tunes. You are such a good dog.” I told her, and threw her squeaky toy around for a short game of fetch.
By early evening, I got to the small river town of Harper’s Ferry, MN, and happened to see a couple of guys talking on their front lawn. I asked if they knew who I could talk to in town who might permit me to tent camp in their small park on the edge of town, and one man said he was on the town council and didn’t have any problem with that. I went to the local library, which was miraculously open until 7 PM, and washed up in their bathroom, sent a couple of emails and charged devices, since I hadn’t had cell phone service in a few days. When I returned to the city park and began to set up the tent, a dark haired man pulled up with a golden dog and a lawn mower both riding in the bed of his pickup truck. He came over to find out about my travels, and said he felt like he had deja-vu because he’d spoken to a cyclist last year who was also riding across country from Maine to Washington and had a similarly loaded up bike.
I explained the Northern Tier route to him, and he seemed incredibly impressed and happy to talk. Brian said he was just headed to his cabin to mow the grass, and he offered the place to me if I wanted to come shower and post up for the night. I got a good vibe and decided it would be fun to talk to him more, so I pushed on a few more miles down the road to the address he gave me, where he was out riding around on the lawn mower, golden haired dog following him around.
Brian told me about his family and three adult children, his contractor work and the restaurant he owned with his son, and the neat little second house he dubbed the Lock 9 Lodge after the river dam just down a walking path from his house. A handy and eco-sensitive guy, he’d built up the place with his own talents, re-purposing chicken coop windows, tin walls, a bay window that a client hadn’t been happy with, sinewy smooth tree branches as curtain rods, and amusingly, a bathroom door lock made out of an old screwdriver that slid into a drilled hole in the door frame. He invited me to take a walk with the dogs just before the sun was setting, and I thought a good stretch would be enjoyable, so we went out with a couple of cold IPAs and a bag of locally made cheese curds. I’d never had them before, but they were so fresh and soft, and they sort of squeaked on your teeth when you bit into them. Tunes seemed to enjoy them as well, but not nearly as much as the freedom of walking with another dog, bouncing through some grass and accumulating a terrible number of tiny, prickly cockaburs in her soft and curly hair.
The beauty of this riverside walk mesmerized us, and our talk turned to spiritual matters and the reverence for the peace in natural, quiet places like this. It looked a little like New Zealand or Hawaii or Jackson Hole, and he commented, “You’d never know this was Iowa just looking at it. People are too busy watching TV and don’t even know that this gorgeous place is out here.” We headed back before it got too dark, and he made a crackling campfire that we sat around and talked beside for a while until it was time to sleep, and I rested comfortably, feeling lucky to have been open to this experience and been able to end my day with such a spectacular sight. Before I left the next day, we walked the length of the lock, a 4 mile hike, and Brian pointed out a lot of interesting wildlife– a few bald eagles, ducks, sparrows, a snake that made us jump in surprise, a blue-patched fish caught by a man with an impressive assortment of fishing gear. The morning fog had burned off and it wasgetting quite hot again, so before the day escaped me, I set out again to do some more climbing.
Singing loudly as I cranked up hills, I was in a fantastic mood, amplified by some catchy songs on the radio, including today’s song of the day that I boogied to, weaving waves on the empty streets like a big muppet musical number. Yeah, I’m in love with my life, I agreed with the music, nodding in time. This hasn’t always been the case for me, as darker days in the past made it hard to see all of the joyful possibilities that now seem to stretch out all around me. I made it into Minnesota and took the usual state border pictures, and MN wins the prize for in terms of the nicest sign, all carved and landscaped as a decorative welcome post. I saw some kids having a carwash and was tempted to roll through to have them hose down my rig and myself, and puppy was starting to need a bath again, too. Instead, we just filled up water bottles in a convenience store. An elderly man saw my knee brace and asked how I hurt myself. “Ah, it’s an old skiing injury that gets a little cranky now and again,” and he nodded with a knowing smile. “I used to play baseball, a lot, probably until I was too old, in my 40s, when I just couldn’t go on any longer. Two torn rotator cuffs, both knees shot, yup,” he laughed. “But we make the best of it and still keep going, don’t we?” “Absolutely,” he said with a grandfatherly jolliness. “Good luck to you. Maybe I’ll see you on World of Sports!” “Better there than on the six o’clock news!” I said and we shook hands and parted ways.
In the early afternoon, I’d done 50 miles and reached the bustling city of La Crescent, MN, where I stopped for water at a convnience store called Kwik Trip, where the staff was very friendly and let me fill my bottles with ice and water for free. A man standing outside with shoulder-length white hair chatted with me about my trip for a little while, and I asked him for clarification on the directions for thenext part of my route. My map said I could avoid some steep hills if I followed state route 61, but on my GPS, it seemed like that was an interstate, and I didn’t want to accidentally ride on a highway again like that one scary time in Denver when I mistakenly rode on the freeway for one exit during rush hour. Not fun. There was a cylist-friendly campground ahead on that route, though, so I thought if I could confirm its safety, that might be the best way to go. I went back in the store to see if there was anything I wanted to snack on, but left empty handed. When I left the store, he was on the phone, and approached me again to say that he had his wife on the phone and if I was interested, I could come stay the night with them. I voice-verified with his wife and decided that even though it was still sort of early, it was a hot day and I was sure Petunia would appreciate the rest. My coincidental host led the way on his heavy, blue and chrome motorcycle, just a couple of miles down the road. There was one rollercoaster-looking climb, but it wasn’t that long, and at the top, he said he was quite impressed, as he’d tried to ride it before without any gear and was zigzagging back and forth all over the road, pushing hard to get up it.
Knute and Judy’s welcomed me to the beautiful, eco-conscious and thoughtfully constructed house they had designed themselves. We talked story for a little while on the porch as Tunes lounged in the grass, and I showed them my little TransAm tour video. They were delightfullly easy to talk to and had a fabulous sense of humor. Judy seemed to be especially pleased to have the company of a little dog again, as their dogs Barf and Stuupy (how great are those names?) had passed some years ago. “It’s funny how you still have dreams about them, even though they’ve been gone for years,” Judy said, and I gave Tunes an extra hug.
Photo by Knute:
My gracious hosts prepared a healthy meal with mushrooms, chicken, veggies, bananas, grapes, rice, nuts, and all sorts of goodies. They seemed amused by how much food I could put away. “The best things about bike touring,” I squeed, “are the people you meet, the beauty of the country I get to see, and the way I can eat practically anything and everything and not gain any weight!” When they heard about my route and my indecision about traveling the state road, they seemed concerned about the condition of the road as a massive construction project was going on and that it might be unsafe, but also pointed out that the other way involved a big, steep climb onto the bluffs and then back down into the coulees, as Knute pointed out how the hills and valleys were termed here. With great care for my safe travels, they offered to take me for a drive along both routes to help me make a decision. We soon realized that route 61 was definitely a no-go: a tiny, busy lane without shoulders and hemmed in by orange traffic cones on both sides, it would’ve been truly dangerous to attempt riding a slow, wide bicycle alongside all of those cars and barriers. But had I not met Knute and took him up on the offer to stay with him and Judy, I wouldn’t have known of the potential perils ahead of me. Saved by good fortune yet again. We drove up the other road, which was quiet and scenic, but with a twisty, steep climb and limited visibility. Judy had the idea to call their cyclist neighbor and see if they could use his bike-rack-enhanced car to cart me to the top. I didn’t think the hill was that outrageous, but they told me to think about it as we made our way to a sweet local food co-op so I could get some road goodies. It was such a nice market, and I got some great trail mix, some more energy/granola bars that were not the same crumbly gas-station mart brand that are found everywhere and have started to become somewhat repulsive to me, and a pluot, because yaaaay fresh food!
Back at their place, my dear hosts invited me to do laundry and get comfy on their pull-out sofa bed for sleep, and I did both. Somewhere around midnight, the bright flashes of lightning, the heavy thud of rain on the roof and windows, and loud slaps of thunder woke me up. Petunia was shaking nervously, but I watched the storm with a smile on my face, having lucked into happy, dry, hospitalble accomodations with wonderfully kind people. It felt like the storm lasted a long time, but I finally fell back to sleep, and had dreams of riding around with Petunia.
The next morning, my new friends fed me breakfast, and I got a taste for raw milk (yum!), and Judy had fun trying to find ot if there was anything I wouldn’t eat (after a big bowl of a 3-cereal mix, a big fresh berry and yogurt smoothie she made for me, and a bowl of lima beans, the answer was clearly no). I permitted myself to be somewhat easily talked into accepting a ride up the first hill. I’m not a purist, and it was maybe 1-2 miles, and I have learned enough to be okay with accepting help if it’s offered and useful. We got some fun pictures at the pretty vista, and Judy reluctantly parted with Petunia after surprising me with a couple of giant cookies from the hip co-op. They were so good, they didn’t last the whole day. With blue skies and a comfortable breeze on the air, we started off on top, yet again.
Song of the day: I’m in Love with My Life by Phases.