2014 Iowa – Day 10 – Montezuma to Yellowbanks Park: A run-in with ‘the law’

Wednesday May 28, 2014, 58 miles (94 km) – Total so far: 429 miles (690 km)

I am not an early morning person. My body naturally says that 8.30am is a good time to awaken. But on the road, I love early mornings. Most often I do not even resist my watch alarm (which I set because I naturally do not awaken in the pre-dawn, even on the road). I often pack in the dark as the birds first begin to tweet their songs of greeting, and then I’m on the road at first light.

I love the relative silence and stillness. I enjoy watching the world take on colour as the sun rises and the shades of grey diminish with the shadows. I love the calm. It allows me to slice through the air with my non-aerodynamic load. The sense of freedom is greater when you are not grunting into a headwind. I love watching the day begin for my fellow humans – reinforcing what diurnal creatures our species is meant to be. I wave to the early risers, usually farmers in pick-ups, whom always wave back. As the day progresses and the commuters hit the roads, it is not as friendly and laid-back on the road as in those early morning hours.

Early morning – let’s go!

Today I’m way down the road, over hill and dale repeatedly, before I hit the commuters. I’m climbing in and out of the forks (north, south and middle) of a major river system named after a mid-sized mammal – the Skunk. The valleys are broad with wide, rich floodplains all planted to various crops; the hills are bunched up along the edges as if they were crowding in closer to the water source. The further between forks I get, the flatter the hills. There is always a good downhill to each floodplain and a long climb out.

I hit the commuter rush at Lynnville. Grinnell, Newton, Des Moines, Pella and Oskaloosa are all within working distance. The little gas station on the main corner in town does a booming business with caffeine-craving commuters, as I sit there watching the comings and goings for 20 minutes while eating my morning snack.

Lynnville. Ragbrai has been through here. This painting was on the side of the post office.

Unfortunately, one of the roads out of Lynnville up to I-80 is closed, so much of the traffic goes with me down F62 to Sully. Among all the cars is a heap of gravel trucks going back and forth between the construction zone and the gravel pit at Reasnor. It is not particularly pleasant riding for a while, pedalling up and down those hills with limited sight lines on the uphills and plenty of traffic travelling with a purpose.

I zoom down the hill into tiny Reasnor. There is a gargantuan house on an adjacent hill coming into town. I cannot understand how anyone needs a mansion that size unless they are housing an entire refugee soccer team from Afghanistan or something! When I take a picture of the old gas station on the corner in town, you can even see that mansion from there – it looks like it is sitting on the roof of the old gas station-cum-some-other-business.

Reasnor, IA. A few houses, this corner building and a gravel pit all deep down in the floodplain of the Skunk River.

As I travel through the main Skunk River floodplain, I think about how I love these broad river valleys. Even though they are wide, they feel as though they are tucked down in the hills. As a settler, I would have been attracted to these valleys, too. It looks like it would have some protection in winter, and good water and soils for crops, stock and household needs in summer. You would also have the pleasant aesthetics of a tree-lined watercourse weaving through the valley, the river utilising the whole width of the floodplain to meander back and forth as it erodes its way across the landscape. Of course the present landscape has been much-cleared and the river straightened. Dams upstream prevent floods, but it’s still an attractive Iowan landscape.

I have a bit more of a chance to revel in this broad valley after I leave behind all the gravel trucks at the gravel pit. Enough excitement to raise an eyebrow and the perk of a smile hits me when I see trucks entering and then see that all of the mud tracked on the road from trucks exiting is heading the other way.

I climb out of the valley into steeper hills as mid-morning approaches. By the time I hit tiny Monroe, I’m ready for a bathroom and sunscreen application break. Monroe has a bypass for all of the travellers heading from Ottumwa, Oskaloosa and Pella toward Des Moines, but there is still plenty of traffic heading through town. Not much of it must stop though, because there aren’t very many businesses in town and none out on the bypass. I do find a grocery on the main drag located in an old gas station. It looks like nothing from the outside – I’m not even sure it is a grocery or will be more than a convenience and liquor store. A bread truck outside is the only thing that gives me hope of sustenance more filling than chocolate bars.

Inside, I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s pretty tiny, but well-stocked and has good deals on the things I’m after – fruit, veg, crackers and cottage cheese. It even has small containers of home-made pasta and potato salad in a case, since there isn’t a full deli counter. Score! What even makes it better is that the owner asks me twice if I’m doing okay and finding all that I need, and not in a way that makes me think he suspects me of shoplifting 🙂 The third time he comes over, as I’m making my way to the register, he starts up a conversation. He mentions that RAGBRAI has come through before. No, I’m not training for that. (In Iowa you get the standard seven questions instead of the standard six – after the standard six you always get asked if you are training for RAGBRAI).

The store owner thinks what I’m doing is just fantastic. I’ll never regret taking the time to adventure while I’m young, he says. Last year he took his family (wife, one son in high school, one in college) to Yellowstone and it was just the most fantastic thing to have the family all together, particularly as his kids are just about grown and gone. Just before wishing him and his business well, I ask which road in town turns into F70. I wasn’t sure when I rode around the dead ‘square’. He gives me directions and warns me that there are a lot of hills, plus one killer hill in particular, on the way to Runnells. Then we part with a firm but friendly handshake and well wishes.

Tiny Monroe, IA. You might think there would be more happening here this close to Des Moines, but, no. This bike may have been in this hardware store window since it was new.

Yes, there are hills between Monroe and Runnells, but they are no worse than the half of the state I’ve covered so far. I encounter two hills that might be longer and steeper than the others on F70, but nothing like I haven’t seen so far. At the bottom of one steep-sided valley, there is a trio of farmers standing outside a huge machinery shed not far from the road. I wave and all three of them wave back enthusiastically. One yells, “Looking good! Good luck!” So of course, to retain my pride, I have to power up the steep hill in front of me like I’m superwoman.

The man at the grocery store in Monroe says there is a killer hill on the way into Des Moines. Is this it?
Well, the last hill wasn’t too bad. Maybe THIS is the killer hill.

Runnells comprises a new school, a new Caseys, a short, old main street and a bunch of new Des Moines escapees with big homes on hobby blocks and cheaply constructed big homes on small blocks closer in. Des Moines is heading this way.

I take a guess that the gravel road heading downhill and south out of town over the railroad tracks is the one I need. It weaves around in the huge, flat floodplain of the Des Moines River for a while. It is generally going the direction I think I need, so I stick with it in its gravel wanderings. The road eventually becomes paved as we travel through grassland. We also pass through weedy trees and vines typical of riverine vegetation not too picky about being inundated or dry. Several wildlife management areas are fenced off as we traverse upstream out of sight of the river. Eventually we start climbing out of the floodplain and start seeing scattered nice houses as we undulate on a river bench. We then complete a couple climbs to the river bluff where the homes are even bigger but closer together. Manicured lawns, ornate entryways, and mailboxes with more money invested in them than some people spend on ALL of their landscaping, escort us along SE Vandalia toward Yellow Banks Park. There is money out this way, but everyone is polite in passing me. I think it must be in the Iowan DNA.

Yellow Banks Park is a county park. A well-used one at that. It’s got ball fields, several big campgrounds, a river access point, hiking trails and an archery range (I think). I set up the tent in a walk-in tent camping area on the edge of the bluff overlooking the river. The porta-potty is beyond gross. It has not been cleaned since Memorial Day weekend and there is no toilet paper. Eeeww – I head over to the electric hook-up campground (a few minutes walk) and the flush toilets and showers are nice and clean.

View over the Des Moines River from the tent area on the bluff.

I fill up my Camelbak, drop my camping fee envelope in the door of the grounds crew shed, and then take off and do a bunch of the hiking trails in the late afternoon. There are some Indian mounds and rare oak savannah vegetation to see, as well as good views of the river from the bluff and down on the banks.

We go for a hike. The green in the Midwest is pretty full-on!
Oak savanna. Very rare vegetation community after most of the land in Iowa was cleared for farming.
Des Moines River.

In the evening, I watch as the ranger in the lights and sirens truck pulls up in a hurry. The UHF radio is squawking. The ranger exits the truck in a huff and aims straight toward me. I watch him come – I’m camped up the back and it’s a couple minutes walk from the parking area. He is not happy.

I know what this is about. When I filled out the fee envelope, I realised I did not have $13 in change. Normally, I break 20s all the time so that I have plenty of $1 bills for self-registration camping fees. Sometimes, I’ll even have $13 in singles! But today, I did not. I had several $20 notes, a $10 note, a $1 note, and some coins. So I stuck $11 in notes and $1.50 in a variety of coinage into the envelope. I figured I might not get change if I put in a $20, but someone might come ‘round if I only put in $12.50.

Now, there are several ways to approach law and order. There is the understanding way, and the strict adherence to rules way. Mr Ranger is all rules. As he advances, with his gun and handcuffs on his hips, he starts questioning. Before he even reaches me.

“Did you put this envelope in the chute?” he asks angrily.

Now I’m not sure what envelope he is holding, or whether someone else has stiffed him as well, but I assume he is holding the one that says “Bicycle” in the car registration box.


“You didn’t put in the correct fee. If you don’t have the money, you can’t camp. Simple as THAT!”

Sheesh. I reply, “I didn’t have the correct change. I have a $20 note if you can give me change.”

“You cannot camp if you don’t have the correct fee”, he says, staring at me with eyes of fire and order.

“I didn’t know how often the fee chute was checked. I was afraid if I put in $20 I wouldn’t get change back, so I did the best I could”.

Normally, authority figures put the fear of God into me, even though I’m an atheist, and even if I’ve done nothing wrong. But this guy just pisses me off. I want to tell him that I’ve deducted 50 cents from the camping fee because the facilities provided (that nasty porta-potty) are not usable. But I just shut up – you cannot reason with anger. I have learned that much in life.

He looks at me closely. He waves the envelope. He then asks, “How long are you staying”?

Seriously? He can see that I wrote $12.50 in the ‘fee paid’ box, but he can’t see “1” in the other box? I reply, “Just tonight. I’m heading west and going to check out Des Moines tomorrow.”

Now, if I were a ranger and saw that a person was on a bicycle and had an overseas address on the envelope, I might be a little curious about them and might be a little more lenient than I would be for a local. But not this guy.

“Just tonight? Well, I guess you can stay. But don’t ever do it again. You HAVE to have the CORRECT fee to camp. You cannot NOT pay the fee. If you don’t have the money, you CANNOT stay”!

“Sir, I have a $20 note if you can give me change.”

“Don’t bother. Just don’t ever do it again”! He looks at me like I’m a hopeless cause and the beginning of the downfall of civilisation, then turns around and strides back to his truck like he is pacing off yardage in preparation to line a football field or something.

I’m going to give the guy some leniency on my behalf and not hold a grudge. Maybe there is more to the story than I know. Maybe they have trouble with vagrants. Maybe they have people who live here in tents when they can’t afford rent and then can’t afford camping fees either. Maybe they have people trying to stiff them money all the time. And maybe some people never find that fee chute (it wasn’t incredibly easy to figure out where to put the fee envelope). And maybe it’s this guy whom has to go chase all of them down but doesn’t have the personality, people skills and flexibility to calm a situation rather than inflame it. I don’t know. But it does make me wonder what he’s like when he overtakes a touring cyclist on the road.

Great place to camp on the southeast side of Des Moines. It’s very easy to launch into the city from here.


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