Sunday June 1, 2014, 79 miles (128 km) – Total so far: 658 miles (1,059 km)
They say that gambling is addictive. Perhaps it is. I’m starting my second day in a row with a gamble.
As I ride out of town on federal highway 71 in the gentle glow of dawn, the traffic is nil and the wind is already working itself over 10mph. My intended route of F32 immediately climbs steeply away from the highway. Ugh. I don’t want to do that on cold legs. I could sail along with the wind for a few miles up to F24 and then head west on that county road. It will be further upstream in the drainage system, so potentially, the hills could be less steep where the streams are just getting their start. But, F24 could be a lot worse, too. At least here I can see the immediate climb and some of the ones further ahead.
I roll the dice and head up to F24. The first climb isn’t too steep, but many of the ones afterward are a challenge. The rollercoaster over the 16 miles of hills is continuous. Up. Down. Up. Down. Fly. Crawl. Fly. Crawl. There is no traffic to watch me spin my way up each steep ¼ mile hill – no traffic to snigger at my torment. I enjoy the ride, though, only because I know it’s whipping me into shape, I like the scenery and pain only pushes me harder. Oh yes, it a may be an addiction worse than gambling, I fear.
We up-and-down our way over to Irwin – a tiny town on a branch of the Nishnabotna River. There a few streets of homes, a church and a gas station. The gas station is the place to be. Two young girls carry a bag of doughnuts from the shop. The local preacher walks out with a coffee. I go in and grab drinks.
The three farmers have been watching me since I came out to down liquids. They are chatting among themselves but keep glancing my way. Finally, they send out the advance party. A skinny, older gentleman dressed in worn jeans, a plaid flannel shirt of red and blue, and a frayed baseball cap advertising Cargill, walks over. His voice is gentle but deep, deeper than you’d expect for a man his size. He asks the standard six questions.
We talk for long enough that the other two guys must assume that I’m okay, as they come over to join the conversation. One of them is about the same age as the first guy, but the third guy is probably only in his 40s. They wear similar outfits, but the third guy is wearing a hunting jacket. The advance party man fills them in on the standard six and then says, “she ain’t got no riding partner. It’s just her. Can you imagine riding your bike across the country alone”? They look down and nod their heads in a way that seems to indicate both incredulity and disapproval.
The other two men then start peppering me with questions. Unfortunately, some of them come across as sexist or paternalistic. They ask if I can fix a flat.
How many have you had?
None so far, but last trip I had nine.
They ask if I can fix anything else on the bike and if I carry tools.
No. Whenever something goes wrong, I just stand on the side of the road and look pathetic or flash my tits. Okay, I didn’t say that, but the assumption that I can’t work on my bike and might need help from a man just because I’m a woman is just a bit paternalistic.
I tell them I can do basic maintenance/repair and carry a basic set of tools. Of course, being farmers, this tool talk is exciting stuff, and we commence five minutes of discussion about metric wrenches, the other tools I carry, brake-shifters (oh, they love looking at those, never seen ‘em before), and the number of teeth on my smallest chainring. They look my bike over closely, like it is livestock they are considering for purchase. They approve of my chainring set – insisting that I really need something tiny for the hills I’m about to encounter. I always love it when locals warn me about the hills ahead – as if I’ve parachuted in and not pedalled any other hills in Iowa to get there!
We talk about tents and sleeping bags (they are all hunters so camp out in the field on occasion) and then wind down the conversation. They don’t think I’ll make Onawa today – or Montana by the third week of June. They don’t say this to my face, however. I overhear them talking as they are walking back to their pick-ups. They underestimate me. I will make Onawa today… and Montana by the third week in June.
More steep hills. The wind continues to strengthen. It is mostly a crosswind. I stop for snacks in Earling – another railroad town in a river valley. Its historic main street faces the tracks.
Earling is not known for much, but it is known as being the place of one the last exorcisms sanctioned by the Catholic Church in 1928. For 23 days, at a convent north of town, Emma Schmidt writhed, spit, blasphemed and did whatever else you do when demons possess you. The book and movie ‘The Exorcist’ were partially inspired by written accounts of the event (which you can find online).
From Earling, we head out on a state highway. The traffic is not too bad and the grades are easier. The road provides us with many curvy climbs and descents. Much of the time we are high in the landscape, the wind giving us a push at times as we head north and west.
It is hot and humid when I stop at the supermarket in Dunlap. I need to get more food in, but it is too hot to want anything. In these times, I find I can manage fruit. So I sit in the shade eating bananas, strawberries and chunks of cantaloupe.
I take another gamble. Maybe it is addictive. Maybe it is just part and parcel of bike touring. The uncertainty of not knowing what exactly lies ahead is one of the things that makes bicycle touring so fun for me. This time I gamble on Hwy 37. There are county roads I could take that are less direct but would have less traffic. However, the traffic hasn’t been too bad so far on the state highway, and with storms forecast, I want to ride a bit faster than the steep hills on the backroads through the loess hills are likely to permit.
The gamble pays off. The pavement in the climbs out of Dunlap is good. The traffic is a bit heavier but still manageable. The wind is shoving me around, but it’d be doing that regardless of which road I’d chosen.
At the tiny town of Soldier, which sits on the edge of a river valley that’s been carved deep into the silt of the loess hills, I stop for a drink. It is so hot outside, I think I might just sit inside at a table to drink a Coke. But I overhear a man talking to the cashier about strong storms approaching. The sweat is still running down my face, but I take the Coke to the counter instead of the booth and inquire about the weather details.
“Where you going”, asks the cashier.
“Onawa (pronounced On – uh – wah)”.
“Oh, hon’, the storms are supposed to be here in an hour and a half. How long do you think it will take you to ride there from here”?
“Longer than that for 19 miles. Or maybe just on that.”
“Well, it’ll get there before it gets here. You better hurry. There’s hail in it, they say”.
So I start the race with only two swigs of Coke down my throat and no time soaking up the A/C. The clouds do not look menacing yet. Unfortunately, the pavement goes shitty just outside of town. The wind is also becoming a hindrance as it is starting to swing to the southwest. I climb slowly up the steep slopes of the hills, trying to take time to admire the wind-blown silt lumped into hills and ridges. The loess hills are truly a beautiful and unique ecosystem, with some plants found here and nowhere else. I’ve enjoyed my previous two rides through the hills further south and wish I didn’t have to rush so much today.
Ten miles down the road at Turin, I emerge from the hills onto the floodplain. The sky still does not look too bad. The small, puffy cumulus clouds have started to get denser, and the wind has gotten pretty crazy, but there are no real signs of imminent danger.
I pedal on across the floodplain and proceed to get blown off the road by the crosswind six times. That is a daily record for me. (I find out later the wind is 27-30 mph with gusts to 40 mph out of the south here.) Car drivers are giving me honks and thumbs-ups, and this spurs me on.
In Onawa I stop to get cash from an ATM and take a few swigs of Coke while I admire the old buildings on the super-wide main street. The road out to the interstate is narrow and the drivers impatient. I get squeezed several times on my way to McDonalds. The line there is long; the wait hopeless. Usually I go in and buy a large drink and then use the wifi. But the sky to the west is getting quite dark, so I just plop down and take the wifi for free.
Radar indicates that the storms are coming, indeed. There is a wall of precipitation coming with long arcs of red and orange on the radar. So I won’t be heading further west to camp at the state park by the river or just over the river in Decatur. I could camp here – there is a commercial campground across the street – but the severe thunderstorm warning that has been issued for Onawa indicates that there is golf ball-sized hail and damaging winds to come.
So I head over to the Super 8. The front desk clerk is also the manager. She is happy to rent me a room but says she has none available right now (it’s 3.30 pm). She rolls her eyes and says, “it’s been one of those days, I’m sorry.” I tell her no worries. I fill out the paperwork, then go next door to the DQ to get a Blizzard and wait until a room is available.
I hang out and watch the parade of people coming and going. When the storm looks like it is about to hit, I start to get on the bike and ride back over to the hotel. A woman calls out to me. Then her 12-year-old daughter calls out, too. I don’t hear them to start, so the daughter runs over to me and says, “Excuse me, Ms.” The mom then says, “Don’t leave. Don’t ride into that. That storm’s got hail in it and it’s coming this way.” How kind. The Iowans have turned it on from border to border. I thank them but let them know I’m just heading next door. The mom is visibly relieved.
I won the race today. I lose a lot of them. But the highway gamble was a good one and here we are clean and dry as the storms come and go for several hours. Areas north of here get hammered, but Onawa comes out unscathed.