Thursday May 29, 2014, 32 miles (52 km) – Total so far: 461 miles (743 km)
I have to restrain myself. I really like to get up and get on the road in the morning. I don’t eat breakfast, so usually I go from sleeping bag to pedalling in about 40-45 minutes. I can’t eat for an hour after taking the thyroid pill, and I’m not a breakfast kind of gal anyway, so usually I ride for about 20 miles before I stop for fuel. But this morning, I’m just hanging about, spinning my wheels metaphorically, waiting for all the commuters to drive into Des Moines and get off the road.
I can’t hold back any longer and head out at 9am. Everyone must already be at work, or there is a different way to go, because the traffic is incredibly light on SE Vandalia. Just two miles into the ride, we roll over a rise and downtown Des Moines comes into view.
Our ride converges with a truck route for a bit, but except for a short section between the highway interchange and a big Casey’s fuel terminal with huge gasoline holding tanks, I don’t really encounter many trucks. The ones I do share the road with are very polite.
Our route into the city goes like this: take SE Vandalia to Maury St. At the end of Maury St, hop on the bike path on the levee of the Des Moines River and head into downtown. I spent quite a bit of time in my pre-trip research trying to find a good way into the city from the east. There aren’t any bike paths that stretch into the country, or that give a direct and continuous route into the city from the east. But this approach looked do-able on Google Maps and Streetview and on the Des Moines area bicycle maps available online. Maury St is a designated bike route and the park we camped at last night provides a perfect launching point into the city.
So SE Vandalia takes you through an industrial section of town. It is an olfactory experience to say the least. If it is industry, it is there. We pass the sewage treatment plant (a bit whiffy), the sludge processing plant (even more whiffy), feed mills (slightly acidic, slightly sweet-smelling), grain silos (smells like the inside of an anaerobic compost pile), a timber processing plant (sorta Christmas trees/lumberyard and chemical smells anyone?), factories of all sorts (metal and sweet chemical smells), and a meat-packing plant (oh my goodness, does that ever reek something awful!). We also pass by numerous salvage yards which thankfully don’t smell like anything and mostly lay hidden behind long and tall metal fencing. The worst part, ride-wise, is that there are a bazillion rail crossings to negotiate. However, if you truly want to experience a city, than I fully believe that you need to see the guts of it before you go see the heart.
After the industrial section, we pass through a lower socio-economic neighbourhood. Small, one or two-bedroom cottages with unkempt front lawns, peeling house paint, and junked out cars sitting up on blocks, sit in the shade beneath massive old trees lining the streets. Ironically, through the green leaves of the trees on several streets is a view of the gold-leaf dome of the state capitol building. You could not frame a greater contrast between the powerful and the powerless.
We make our way onto the Riverwalk bike path. It escorts us right into the CBD past the minor league baseball stadium and past old factories now gentrified and turned into lofts. The downtown area has been revitalized and the paths along the river are well-done and quite aesthetically pleasing. I ride into the high-rises of the city and cannot believe how dead it is. Where is everyone? Are they just inside the office buildings working? The streets are just so empty – there isn’t even that much traffic. There are no school or tour groups walking around. I’m the only tourist-looking person anywhere. It actually feels a bit peculiar.
I am, however, impressed with the number of bike lanes I encounter. I’m also VERY impressed that the city has ‘sharrows’ (Share Arrows) painted on several of the streets AND the car drivers know what they are supposed to do when a cyclist is present in one of those lanes.
I am not, however, impressed with Destination Des Moines. I have an address for the information centre. I really need a state map. A map of the city and the bike paths would be useful, also. But I absolutely cannot find the info centre. I roll up onto the sidewalk at the correct address, and all I can see is a Kinkos. I walk up and down the block with the bike. Nothing. I get back out on the road and ride all the way around the block. Nothing. There is a big hole in the ground with construction fencing all the way around it next to where the address should be. Surely that’s not it. I’m totally confused, and the streets are so empty, there is no one to ask. I do see a bunch of people in matching bright t-shirts, whom look at me with some interest, but I don’t think they’d know. Crap.
Finally, on about my third lap of the block, I see a banner for Destination Des Moines out of the corner of my eye, in a second story window of the Capital Place office block. Now, come on, Des Moines tourist dept., could you have given the building name you are located within and maybe indicated that you were on the second floor of the building – rather than just giving a numbered street address? How badly do you want tourism dollars?
So my next problem is what to do with the bike. There is no way I’m leaving it outside an office building in a downtown capital city. So I decide to take it inside. I can now tell you that bicycles do not fit in revolving glass doors. I get partially into one and have to reverse back out. I’m sure it was as humorous to watch in person as it just was in your imagination. So, instead, I head toward a regular glass door and wrench it open and shove my bike through.
The entire time I’ve been attempting to enter the building with two wheels and two feet, a bank teller and a bank manager have been watching me through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the bank just inside the revolving doors. As they see me struggle into the building, they both come out of the bank to help. Goodness, Iowa, other than your authority figures, your folks are so freakin’ kind wherever I go. The bank manager is interested in my trip, and we have a very nice chat. He tells me to leave my bike against the glass window of his office and he’ll keep an eye on it for me while I head upstairs. He places a signboard advertising interest rates on the outside of my bike.
I race upstairs. I feel incredibly out-of-place among all the professionally-dressed office workers, but no one averts their gaze or moves self-consciously out of my way. Inside Destination Des Moines, they are incredibly friendly and helpful. They have a regular state map and a bike map. They also give me regional and city bike path maps. They give me suggestions on what I might like to see in the city and are very excited when I sign the guest book with an Australian address. I answer the standard ‘seven’ questions and they wish me well.
Interestingly, all those people I saw in matching coloured t-shirts on the street are town representatives for this year’s RAGBRAI. The t-shirts are their town’s ride/pride gear. They are meeting in this same building downstairs. But none of them say anything to me. It’s so odd – almost every single person I meet all the way across the state in 2010, 2013 and 2014 asks if I’m training for RAGBRAI, and here I am walking among event organisers and not a single one says anything to me!
The bank manager comes out to shake my hand and to wish me all the best, as I return to retrieve my bike. I thank him profusely and tell him how much I appreciate his kindness. I wish I had people skills like him. Terrific guy.
I spend a fair bit of time at the sculpture park. I am not artistic at all. I’m so bad at creating visual arts that I used to fake sickness in primary school to get out of art class. In junior high, I took Band and suffered the indignity of playing a clarinet for two years to get out of taking Art. I was afraid of doing very poorly and receiving a bad grade that would hurt my GPA and my quest for straight As every semester. But I very much enjoy taking in exhibitions and visiting art galleries. Oh, I don’t get it at the level that the snobby and pretentious seem to understand, but art gives me great faith in humanity. I marvel at artists’ ability to capture life’s struggles and triumphs in so many concrete and abstract forms. I love reading the descriptions of pieces and trying to put my mind into the artists’ heads – trying to see the world the way they see it. I love how artists interpret the world and can express that view in such amazing and intricate designs. That we humans are capable of such thinking and expression fills me full of vitality and appreciation.
From the sculpture park, we ride up to the state capitol building through an area that boomed in the 1930s, was most likely forgotten for quite a few years, but has been gentrified and repopulated with hipsters and other cool people in the past decade. The ride really is up. The state capitol building sits on top of a terminal moraine. The paths and steps to the building are filled with memorials and monuments. Colourful gardens of native and exotic plants line the paths. I enjoy my time here before heading back across the street to the state history museum. Gettin’ my nerd on today 🙂
After a late lunch on the steps of the capitol building, I head back down to the river and go north on the bike path system. I’m so impressed with how well-used and how well-signed the bike path system is in this city. Good on you, Des Moines. I always think of agricultural states as conservative and regressive in many ways, but now I remember that you are a ‘blue’ state, so perhaps you keep taxes a bit higher and actually fund infrastructure improvements. I don’t know the story, but I’m loving the ease of bicycle travel in your capital city today.
The bike paths take me along on top of the levees and down on the floodplain. We pass under huge, old cottonwoods and past people fishing. We ride down in the cool shade of the trees, under the interstate and beyond. The path continues all the way out past Saylorville Lake – a huge reservoir on the Des Moines River built for flood control. You could connect that path with the High Trestle Trail by taking some county roads between the two, but I stupidly decide to head into Ankeny instead.
There is a nice bike path into Ankeny, but it unfortunately spits you out into suburban big box commercialised hell. The bike path becomes a wide sidewalk as you progress into town. Way to go, Ankeny, remove the bicyclists from the flow of traffic so they have to slow and negotiate every driveway that crosses the sidewalk AND cross at crosswalks where none of the drivers appear to be looking for cyclists or pedestrians. I am cut off by vehicles turning right or left across me at least five times. One motherfu… excuse me… even honks at me as he turns in front of me when I have the white ‘go’ walker signal!
I take refuge in a McDonald’s and use the last of my iPod battery on wifi to find a grocery store and a motel. I consider riding up to the High Trestle Trail and riding on out to Madrid, thinking I might be able to camp at the rail trail parking lot or something. But it is getting on 4 pm, the traffic to get to the trailhead would be awful, and I want to take the time to enjoy the trail rather than riding fast just to get out of town.
So I safely get myself to a motel ($50 cash). I get the last room – they are full up for an Odyssey of the Mind competition. For the place to be full of teenagers, I never hear a thing. I’m able to use the computer at the front desk to transfer all of my photos from my memory card to a USB stick. I’m also able to do laundry, recharge all my of gear’s batteries and ring my parents (US long distance free on the phone). I also wash Verne’s head – somehow I’ve managed to leave a very dirty thumbprint on the very top of his little head.
What a great day it’s been! I’m not a city gal, but I really have enjoyed visiting the museums, state capitol buildings and other attractions in both Lincoln, Nebraska last year and Des Moines this year. Sometimes I just have to let the nerd out.