Saturday May 31, 2014, 78 miles (125 km) – Total so far: 579 miles (932 km)
It’s a bit of a gamble.
The least risky way to start the day is to ride back east for a few miles to Hwy 17, then ride south for a couple miles to Luther, then head west on E57. This would be like riding the two long sides and one short side of a rectangle. But all of it would be paved and we’d know exactly where we were and where we were going.
The more risky option is to just head south on P Avenue, a gravel road leading away from the park. This would be like riding one short side of the rectangle. However, I don’t know what condition the gravel is in further south, and I do not actually know that this road connects with E57. I have the numbered county roads on my map but not the lettered avenues.
I roll the dice. The gravel is in good condition. The road is not a straight shot down to E57, though. I make a few turns along the way. I can see the Luther water tower way off in the distance to the southeast. Luther is on E57, so I just try to keep the water tower off to my left at a similar distance and work my way down to the latitude of Luther. I eventually get there. The gamble pays off this time.
The stratus clouds lie low and thick this morning. The world is one of grey tones and heavy air. There is no wind. It feels like the sky lies heavy on the ground, suppressing the opening of flowers and the bend of the plants toward the sun. But I make good time. After the descent and climb through the Des Moines River valley, the road is straight and flat. All of the people who tell me that Iowa is flat must have travelled through this section. It’s the only flat part of Iowa I have ever ridden.
At one point I do get chased by a large German Shepard. He is intent on doing bad things. Any time a dog advances out of nowhere at full tilt with no barking or warning but a snarling growl, he wants to tear away flesh. Luckily, I’m on a downhill and can turn on the afterburners. Also lucky is that Badger is obedient. His owner comes out of a small, one-story farmhouse of weathered and peeling white paint and yellow trim and yells, “Badger, STOP!!!” And Badger does. Immediately.
Today, I play the game of alphabet soup. All of the north-south roads I pass are avenues identified by a letter, or a word that begins with that letter. As I proceed west in each county, I go back through the alphabet, starting at Z Avenue in the east and progressing toward A Avenue in the west. Each county is the same. There are a bunch of Peach Avenues in Iowa! One county road is “Umbrella Avenue”, I kid you not. I do keep a look out for a “Turtle” Avenue for a Verne photo-op but do not come across one. Trying to guess what the next avenue will be named keeps me entertained for a couple cloudy hours in an otherwise unremarkable landscape.
I leave the relative flatness behind by the time I get to E68. Just as I come down off the high plains through a series of moraines I pick up a heap of traffic. Of course I’ve had hardly any traffic on all of the flat stuff, but now that there are steep hills limiting distance of sight, there are plenty of cars going both directions. My plan is to take E68, a low-traffic road just north of Hwy 241… but 241 is closed and the detour has put all of the cars on this road. The good thing, however, is that the Iowans are such courteous drivers. Most of them are still giving me the full lane when they overtake me. The ones that don’t give me a full lane, give me at least 2 metres. Almost every single one actually slows down and waits behind me until it is safe to get around. It’s not a particularly good situation for any of us, but man I wish these people could give lessons on sharing the road with drivers from other states!
The countryside is beautiful, though. The corn is starting to get tall enough to give the fields a bright green hue. The bright green corn and dark brown soil sits against a backdrop of the rounded shapes of trees and stripes of darker green grass which outline unplowed sections along drainages.
One poor driver follows me all the way up a 1/2 –mile long hill at 7 mph to the edge of Coon Rapids. She can’t see over the hill, and the on-coming cars are coming frequently enough to prevent a gamble at passing, so she just sits back there patiently. She isn’t crowding me; she isn’t accelerating then braking in protest. The road drops steeply to a ditch, so I can’t really get off the road for her anyway. At the top of the hill, there is a road intersection, so I pull over and let her get by. At this point, we’ve picked up four more cars, but those darn nice Iowans don’t honk or flip me off. I’ll be damned if they don’t all give a friendly wave.
Coon Rapids sits in a valley of another river named after a mid-sized mammal – the Raccoon. While the residential streets are shady and tidy, the main street is wide and dead. There is a decently-stocked supermarket that isn’t too expensive, however. I stop for a break here. In the past 1.5 hours, the dark grey stratus has lifted and the wind has strengthened to a good 10-15mph out of the south. Puffy cumulus clouds are building and suggesting afternoon storms.
Heading south out of Coon Rapids on N46, we hit really hilly terrain for 11 miles. We have to descend and climb in and out of three rivers and several smaller streams. It is tough work, but the tops of the hills provide outstanding views of the rural landscape. The tilled brown soils and the emerging green of corn stalks look like different colours and textures of carpet laid across the land.
I’d put the rain covers on my panniers at lunch. That was a good gamble. At the top of one hill I can see a wave of water coming. I get Verne and Kermit put away and then pedal into the downpour. It is heading north at a pretty good clip while I’m heading south at a not-so-fast clip. The heavy shower lasts less than five minutes but leaves me soaked. It’s been so hot and humid, though, that it was actually refreshing!
After the 11 miles south, it is 8 miles west on a road with more traffic, no shoulder and shittier pavement (F32). I’m feeling quite tired at this point, and the crosswind is now 15-20mph. I struggle along, watching clouds grow dark and dump rain off in the distance. There are various cells moving across the landscape, but luckily, they are all moving away from me.
I finally make it into Audubon, totally spent. The heat, humidity and wind have done me in today. It was too hot to want to eat much, so I haven’t taken in nearly as many calories as I’ve spent in the afternoon hours. I find my way into the old town square and pick up wifi off the library to check the weather.
Audubon was founded as a railroad town in 1878 and is named for the famous ornithologist and painter, John James Audubon. There are tile mosaics all over town that are replicas of his “Birds of America” prints. A statue of Audubon can be found in the centre of the square. The mosaics are all very impressive, but I’m so exhausted, I don’t even take a photo of them. I should have taken a photo of the wide main street lined with historic brick buildings that climbs up from the highway to the historic and shady square, too. My apologies, dear reader.
I make my way down to the park on the south side of town. I pass a Caseys, Subway, Dollar General and small motel, but the Dairy Queen is out-of-business. The park is the start of the T-Bone Trail – a 20-mile, paved bike path heading south to Atlantic. What is more intriguing is the huge concrete bull, Albert. He was started in 1963 to commemorate the beef and cattle industry, as well as Operation T-Bone – early train trips to Chicago to sell prime bulls from the area. Albert is 30 feet tall, weighs 45 tons, and took 65 gallons of paint to cover. He is under constant video surveillance, so don’t get too many ideas of funny or evil things to do to his testicles.
The camping area in the park has heaps of shade and incredibly soft, lush green grass. There are only four RVs camping here tonight. I wash off all the sweat and salt crust in the small, dark, but clean, shower. Then I crawl in the tent and take an hour-long nap on that super soft grass. Ahhh…. By now the wind is 25mph out of the south, so it is nice just to be out of all that moving air.
I’m in bed by 8.30pm, tired from today’s efforts and anticipating some hard riding tomorrow given the weather forecast. The wind never ceases. It flaps the open tent door all night long.