Tag Archives: bike

land of cotton

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Jim invited us to breakfast at Jen’s Diner, which I believe is the only operating restaurant (perhaps the only commercial establishment of any kind) in Columbus, a curious state of affairs for a town that only lost out on being the capital of the United States by one vote. It’s interesting to think about how differently the country might have developed if Columbus had turned out to be the capital. While I don’t think it would have prevented the Civil War, it seems possible that Reconstruction might have turned out differently: the worst failures and rampant corruption might have been addressed more successfully if the center of gravity of the government had been authentically in the heart of the country. One can at least hope that might have been true.

We had a leisurely breakfast punctuated by visits from various townspeople — Jen’s serves a similar function to a Vermont country store — and then Jim took us to a few of his favorite haunts, read a vivid and beautiful passage about the river from his unfinished novel, and introduced us to his charming and welcoming horses. It was hard to leave, and I didn’t set out on the bike until well into the afternoon, but it was a beautiful ride on back roads down to Hickman, where Mary retrieved me and we drove down to Reelfoot Lake to camp for the night.

We are definitely in the South now. There are cotton fields everywhere, still unharvested because there has been so much rain, and you see the farm machinery all set up on the sidelines, waiting for the fields to dry out enough to be able to harvest. I don’t think I had ever seen a cotton field before this trip, so northern and urban am I, and I can’t look at a cotton plant without immediately thinking about slavery and sharecropping, and the inhuman exploitation that benefited both southern landowners and northern merchants.

not even a hair is missing

So I’m driving back from dropping off Rafaela at the Quad Cities Airport (I felt really bad that her whole visit was taken up with searching for the lost gear: not much of a river trip for her, that’s for sure), and as I was heading over the Burlington bridge, the phone rings and it’s the Lee County sheriff saying he thinks they’ve found the kayak just down from the Green Bay launch caught in some trees and reeds. EXACTLY as I had hoped; exactly as I had asked you all to dream! We had gone out looking very slowly and carefully yesterday, and hadn’t found it, but maybe the wake from the boats in this morning’s bass tournament dislodged my kayak from where it had snagged! So I go sit impatiently in the library for a bit and the sheriff calls again and tells me to come down to the Fort Madison launch. I drive down and find John Pawling from Lee County Conservation and the sheriff, James Emmett, standing there with my kayak. Not only my kayak, but ALL the accessories: paddles, life jacket, skirt, safety gear, even my well-used boat shoes and slightly stinky gloves. EVERYTHING!

And then John looks up at my roof rack and says “Where’d you get that bike?“ Cindy and Tom had lent me one of their bikes yesterday, and we had made a plan to meet up in New Orleans when I’m done with the journey for them to retrieve it. (A fine excuse for a trip to NOLA, don’t you think?!) John says, ”I’ve got your bike, too.“

Can you imagine?!? It turns out he saw it locked up at Ortho landing and thought perhaps someone had stolen it and hidden it down there, so he cut the lock and brought it back to the Lee County storage facility.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to have imagined I had lost everything, and suddenly have it all restored in the snap of the fingers like this. The Lee County Conservation folks even gave me a new lock to replace the one they had cut!

So I spent the rest of the day driving back and forth several times between Fort Madison and Burlington: returning Cindy’s bike, picking mine up, heading out to River Basin Canoe to buy a lasso lock for the kayak, and calling all the amazing people who had offered me replacement kayaks and bikes, written articles to get the word out, offered money to re-outfit, places to stay, searchboats to go look, to tell them the miraculous outcome of this story.

And I’m going to choose to believe that the wind pushed my boat six to ten feet down the beach into the river all by itself. No kids, no vandals, no theft, nothing like that. The outpouring of kindness from the people of Burlington and Fort Madison and Keokuk has been such an amazing gift to me. And the support and love from all of you here and on Facebook means so so much: I really feel like I am carrying all of you with me on this journey: you are keeping me safe, and all shall be well.

If you want to make a gesture in support of the people of Lee and Des Moines counties, and all they’ve done to make this story have such a wonderful ending, you could send a donation to either Des Moines County Conservation or Lee County Conservation.

And I’m heading down to Quincy and Hannibal this weekend, to the heart of Huck and Jim territory, and Lincoln/Douglas territory, and the Underground Railroad, and more cool stuff I can’t even predict, and it’s gonna be GREAT!

missing: one red kayak

When we went out to Green Bay landing this morning, the kayak was gone. Simply gone, no trace. The last time I saw it was Sunday around noon, when I was about to paddle down to Ortho landing where the bike was locked up. The wind was too strong, so I decided not to paddle, and I thought it was a bad idea to try to put the kayak back up on the car, partially because I was alone, partially because I needed to drive up to the Quad Cities to pick up Rafaela at the airport Monday and the wind was strong enough that highway driving with the kayak seemed dangerous. I had already left the kayak there overnight with no trouble, so I thought it would be okay.

I was wrong, obviously. Totally wrong.

We called the Lee County sheriff and he came out and took a report. I talked to Mike, a local farmer, whose friend owns some of the hunting camps just upriver and they both promised to ask around.

But there’s more.

We drive down to the Ortho landing ten miles downriver, where I had parked and locked my bike with a big NYC-type chain. And, I bet you can guess, the bike was gone, too. Simply gone, no trace. Not even the presumably broken lock. There was a woman there who comes out every day on her lunch hour who had seen it yesterday, which means the bike was stolen between 1 pm Monday and noon Tuesday.

We called once again, and the police came out to take a report this time (Ortho launch is within Fort Madison city limits, while Green Bay is north enough of Fort Madison to be under the aegis of the county.)

I am now without any form of human-powered transportation. Except walking, I guess(!) And I am kind of in shock. In nearly two months of traveling down the river, nothing has prepared me for this, not even a hint that something like this could happen.

So. We go to the Fort Madison newspaper where I talk to a sympathetic reporter named Joe Benedict, who promises a story for tomorrow’s Fort Madison Democrat. And then we drive back up to Burlington, where I talk to the very kind and helpful editor, Randy Miller, at The Hawkeye, and he, too, promises a story for tomorrow’s paper.

Randy puts me in touch with a local person who wants to remain anonymous, who has put us up in a hotel for the next two nights, and will take us out on the river to look for the kayak tomorrow downriver and in the back sloughs, just in case someone decided it would be fun to launch the kayak just to see where it ends up.

All these people have been so great, so generous with their time and energy and sympathy, that it seems almost unimaginable that both my kayak and my bike could really be gone forever.

So here’s what I’m praying for. That we will go out tomorrow, and my little red sportscar kayak will be caught in some reeds down the river a bit, victim of a dumb prank by some bored kids, and all will be well and I’ll be able to continue on my way almost as if this whole bad adventure didn’t happen. I don’t have much hope for recovering the bike, because in my experience a stolen bike is gone forever. But I’m focusing on the kayak right now, and if you have a little extra space in your day, if you would just dream about my little red kayak half-hidden in the bullrushes waiting to be rescued, I would be really grateful.

out and back

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After nearly two months of continuous travel in the company of other people, I am seriously ALONE for the first time. Tonight this campsite (Wildcat Den State Park) is completely empty, I am the only person here, the only person within at least a couple of miles, I imagine. It’s a lot different from being alone on my land in Vermont, not just because my neighbor Mike isn’t within hailing distance, but also because this place itself, the land itself, is not familiar territory. I am really beginning to understand the sheer immensity of the country in a way that I never have before, and in my mood today, it’s somehow a bit oppressive. All these towns, all these houses, all these lives being lived out in these places I had never even thought about, let alone visited; all these factories and roads and bridges and railroads. And the river itself going on and on.

I biked to Davenport and back today, forty miles round trip: no bike path past the city limits, so most of the ride was on Route 22 with cars and trucks lumbering by, and south of Davenport the riverside is really industrial, a huge limestone quarry (it had a sign out front saying hopefully: ”Quarry Beautification,“ but I couldn’t see the results,) many factories, knots of railroads. The road past the quarry was muddy with accidental cement made from the combination of limestone dust and the morning’s rain, it coated the underside of my bike, my legs, the tires. And the road has been pockmarked, perhaps to make it less slippery for cars and trucks, but it was a drag to bike on.

I get to thinking how everything has its price. You want cement, you have to tear holes in the bluffs to get limestone. You want steel, you dig a pit nearly the size of the Grand Canyon up in Hibbing to get the iron you need. You want to use the Mississippi to move goods, you have to constantly dredge a nine-foot channel and build dams and locks and all that stuff. Perhaps we could have done things differently, perhaps we still can do them differently, but I do realize that even my relatively green, relatively low-impact life is unthinkable without cement plants and dams and brutal quarries hidden in out-of-the-way places. I read somewhere that there are only 2500 acres of real prairie left. Can that really be possible? Maybe just in the state of Iowa? Still, it seems unimaginably low.

Going in to Davenport, I climbed the hill a bit and rode Sixth Street over to the cafe at River Music Experience, passing through a poor part of town, past a group of people lined up for free lunch, and many abandoned houses, some of which had once been mansions. The inhabited houses in the neighborhood were painted in bright colors and had excellent gardens, as if to counteract the orphaned sadness of the abandoned ones. It made me want to buy and fix up one of the lost houses, just to tip the scales a bit further towards vitality.

The museum at River Music Experience was mostly a series of kiosks with information that could just as well be on a website, but they seem to give lessons there, and the concert hall is probably cool, and the cafe downstairs is great, so it was a fine halfway point to the day. The trip home was a slog, though. I don’t really like doing out and back routes in general: they feel artificial and sort of pointless, because they are. And going past the factories a second time was even more disheartening. But once I was past the big plants, there was a bit of a climb and suddenly the river was spread out below me, and I could coast down for the last couple of miles, down to the riverside, blessedly free of factories, just green and birds and a house now and again, and the road and the river, and I was filled suddenly with the most amazing joy, and gratitude for being given joy after a day not so full of it. (Plato is right, for sure! (see Philebus))

Doing this whole trip alone would be unimaginable for me. While I enjoy my self-sufficiency, I am really glad I am not doing the rest of the trip this way: it brings out my dark side almost immediately. Caroline Walker is driving down from Chicago for a few days and will be arriving tomorrow. I am glad for that, and I’m saving the sights of Muscatine so I can discover them with her.

hidden cultures

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There’s a really great bike path from Savanna all the way down to Rock Island called the Great River Trail, so I decided to do a biking day today to take advantage of it. The last time I biked I was beginning to curse my heavy hybrid and wish I had a road bike, but for today, the hybrid was the perfect choice. A few miles down there’s a gravel trail that loops out into the sloughs and wetlands for a few miles, allowing me to really feel like I was biking right on the river itself. Later the trail goes through a sand prairie for a while, and then up onto a levee for several miles, very cool. Eventually I got to Albany Mounds, which was a center of Hopewellian culture that flourished here from 200 BC to 300 AD, with extensive trade networks that spanned most of North America. I biked around the park on grass trails, completely alone, surrounded by tall grass, mounds, mosquitos, and ghosts. I knew nothing at all about this culture before I began this trip, my friend Lauren Gould emailed me something about it and that was the extent of my awareness, and now I’m finding all these amazing sites tucked away where I would never have found them except by traveling this way.

Anyway, I really got carried away with this bike day, ended up logging something like 60 miles, and towards the end I was passed by two obviously experienced bikers on a tandem. When I arrived at the Port Byron library, Lori had already met Bruce and Becky, and they generously invited us to stay at their house in Port Byron. The two of them have biked all over the lower 48 and Canada and Alaska, how cool is that!?! They are definitely kindred spirits, and it seemed like they totally get this journey of mine. It’s funny, in nearly two months of traveling and meeting people, I have yet to meet anyone who even watches TV, let alone supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or doesn’t want to reform health care in this country. I’m out here in the heartland of America, but I am fully aware that I’m not in fact meeting an authentic cross-section of Americans. Is that because I’m biking and kayaking, so generally meeting people who exercise, which skews against TV watchers? Is it because I’m so obviously a scary artsy-dykey type that only NPR-listening newspaper-reading locavores will even talk to me?! Or is the country so divided that Red Staters and Blue Staters are simply invisible to one another, living parallel but completely separate lives in the same places? I really wonder about this.

two-fifths, one-third, whatever

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Yesterday was Mac’s last day and he chose to bike rather than kayak, so I drove him up to Balltown and unloaded him and the bike and then headed down to Dubuque to the public library for a bit, and then to Bellevue, stopping on the way to check out the Trappist Monastery, under re-construction at the moment, and the Fritz Chapel, a tiny chapel in a cornfield, built in gratitude for safe arrival from Luxembourg in 1850.

The woman I spoke with at the monastery suggested we check out the restaurant in the gas station at St. Donatus, which specializes in Luxemburgian food, so Mac and I went there for a last meal together before he heads back east. There was an actual bar there, along with the restaurant, with various sodden folks half-heartedly coming on to each other, and I had a sudden flash on how very different this journey would be if I were hanging out in bars every night instead of at boat ramps and libraries and parks and internet cafes and churches.

And when, after dropping Mac off at the airport this morning, I tried to find a non-chain coffee place in riverfront Moline to no avail, and ended up at the very fancy public library in Bettensdorf, I realize that one great advantage of traveling down the river rather than taking some other journey through America, is that most of the river towns are the oldest towns around, and they retain real character and individuality and flavor, whether rich or poor, gentrified or industrial. I see very few franchises, very little multinational hypercapitalism of any kind on this journey, and I almost begin to forget that mainstream American life is the Starbucks that will let me have free highspeed on my phone but not my laptop, unlike every single independent cafe I have been in on this trip; that the America of the interstates is virtually interchangeable from one end of the country to the other except for shifts of scenery, and even those are softened by the standardization of engineering that makes the highways safe and efficient. And even though I really should spend the day here at this well-equipped modern library catching up with email, doing research, and being responsible, all I want to do is get in the car and head back to rural Iowa, which feels far more like home, despite being about as foreign to my life in NYC as I can get in this country.

Mac’s departure has me sad: I will miss my excellent fellow traveler in a million big and small ways, but I’m also thinking about the fact that one of these days my trip down the river will be over, too. And I’m not at all ready for it to be over. That’s for sure. It’s a very good thing I’m only about one-third of the way down the river!

Why not share it with everyone!!

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After doing the beautiful drive between McGregor and Guttenberg a couple of times these days, I decided it might be time to human-power through the land for a change, so today I started from Guttenberg on the bike instead of in the kayak. The river road definitely goes through hills and dales up and down the bluffs of eastern Iowa, and it is absolutely gorgeous countryside, of a lush expansiveness my iPhone definitely cannot photograph. And my audio recorder can’t capture, either. There is long-distance hearing as well as seeing; something you can only experience when the close-up sounds subside, a rare experience for an urbanite like me, and then you realize you can hear for miles and miles and miles. For real.

When I got to the high point in Balltown, IA, there was a park bench at the overlook with the following message etched in the stone: “I’ve enjoyed this view my whole life. Why not share it with everyone!!” Can you imagine what a great guy Ferdie Klein must have been, not just to help endow the overlook, but to give us the joy and fearlessness embodied in those two exclamation points? He is right here with us!!

I never got back on the bike after Balltown yesterday, because there was a big German restaurant that has been there since 1852 or something, so I texted Mac and he came up from Dubuque (“not as glamorous as you would imagine,” Becky had said, dryly) and we had fried cheese curds(!) and huge hamburgers and more wheat beer (it is everywhere), and then Mac drove us to the Holy Ghost Grotto over in Wisconsin, which Nick had recommended (Nick, you are still with us on this journey, that’s for sure!), and I am so very glad we went there. An artwork on the scale of Watts Towers in Los Angeles or the Beer Can House in Houston, but with the additional overlay of an ardent and exuberant Catholicism, it was built in the 1920’s by the priest of the local church over a period of five years without any preplanning at all. It’s the details that delight me: I imagine him gathering all these materials and then waking up each morning to say “Shall I make a stone rose today; or maybe it’s time for the grapes. No, the tree of life, that’s it!” And did he talk about his work in his weekly sermons? I hope so: it would have been great to hear what he had to say about his project while he was in the midst of making it.

biking in the mist

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This morning while Mac drove Mary Kay down to put in at Lake City, I biked down the hill from Frontenac State Park and over some back roads. The fog was fierce and beautiful, and it was the first time I have biked since Cass Lake, many weeks ago, since there isn’t really space for it when I’m kayaking every other day. But now that we’re three people again for at least a few days, I can get in a bike ride, and it’s such a great complement to paddling: paddling uses your legs sort of similarly to how biking uses your arms, and vice versa, so the combination feels like the ideal whole body exercise, as some trainer guru might say.

I’ve begun to try to invent solutions for how to continue this trip if I end up with gaps where I am alone. Mac has to leave in a couple of weeks, and while various other folks will be joining me, I can’t be sure I will have company every single day for the rest of the journey. My current idea for solo days is to leave the bike at my ending point on the river, drive north, put in the kayak, paddle down to the bike, and then bike back to the car and drive to camp for the night. The nice side effect is that I will both paddle and bike all the sections of the river I do by myself. And it’ll work fine with the one exception that I can’t load the kayak onto the car by myself: the rack is just too high off the ground and the kayak too unwieldy. So I guess I could just leave the kayak at the pullout point each evening and trust that it will be there in the morning. But if any of you have some better solution to this little problem, please let me know.

(The foggy morning cornfield is especially for Susan Sommer.)

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Today was my first biking day; Richard took the kayak across Cass Lake and Mac scoped out an excellent new (free) campsite for us SE of Winniebegoshish that can be headquarters for a few days…

I decided to backtrack to the town of Cass Lake before heading on, and I am so very glad I went there.

It’s a very small town – the sign says pop. 170, so there are probably more people vacationing in the campsite a couple miles away than there are inhabiting the actual town. The main street has a municipal center with a cool mural, and a bunch of services: drop-in health center, senior center, daycare, library. at the end of the main street is a house with an array of handmade murals in front and the smell of sage wafting from the chimney. I stopped to read and take pictures of the signs, and a woman came from down the street to ask if I was a reporter, and she explained that a big oil company has paid the Ojibwe Nation $10 million to be allowed to run a pipeline through Ojibwe lands, and the signs are protesting this, asking for the deal not to happen.

The woman, Nancy, is a teacher in the public school at Cass Lake, where 85 percent of the students are Native, and they do teach Ojibwe in the school. There is also a BIA school, and a college as well. She told me something about the “boarding schools” where Native kids were sent well into the 50’s, which were more like re-education camps. You can learn more about this history here. With a history like this, it must be hard to regard education as the ticket to a better life, that’s for sure…

Nancy was really generous with her time and spirit, and I really enjoyed and learned from our time together. When I got back on the bike path, I noticed for the first time these posts, placed every 500 feet or so. clever, right? you do this nice environmentally sensitive thing of putting in a bike path, and you run your oil pipeline right underneath it.

”It’s so peaceful here. I just love it!“ said a woman heading into the showers at Cass Lake campground this morning, having driven there from her campsite a tiny walk away