Friday, June 8 to Sunday, June 10, 2018.
Rest day! Rest, rest, rest! Hurry up and get everything done so I can rest!
Sigh. No rest for the weary.
The sheets at the Muscatine Best Western seem clean! The bed doesn’t even have a gross bedspread to evade. Just a ‘runner’ which I easily slid onto the floor before bed the night before without touching it. Heather will be so proud when I tell her.
Today was to be a writing day! All day to catch up. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll spend a whole additional day catching up. I could use two full writing/resting days! In my perfect BW bed!
The breakfast included with the room is particularly good for a hotel. A woman in her late 30s (let’s call her…hmmm…’Moxie’) who’d definitely been to a bunch of punk rock shows – white as the sheets upstairs, short black hair, empty but visible piercings, inked – was making omelets. It’s Friday morning at the Best Western, just some business-ish looking men and me.
After breakfast, I chat with Moxie and the young woman who is working on the front desk. “Where you from?” Moxie asks.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
You’re sorry? You’re in Muscatine, Iowa!
Moxie and her conservatively uniformed sidekick ask me about my route, and I give them the rundown. Say I don’t know just yet how I was going to cross Iowa. Have to figure that out today, too. “I’m thinking Muscatine to Council Bluffs.”
She’s like no way to Council Bluffs.
“Why?” I ask. “That’s kind of straight across the bottom of Iowa from here.”
Moxie says, “The strip joints there are the worst.”
“Well, that’s good info, but that isn’t really my scene, so…” Hmm. Oh, I get ya, Mox. I see her a little more clearly at that moment. Former dancer. Maybe a bit more on the side with clients. Shit went down. She makes her way clear across the state to get away from it, maybe an abusive boyfriend in there somewhere. Or girlfriend. She can’t leave the state cuz of the conditions of her parole.
Council Bluffs is sure-as-shit soured for me now. I’m gonna avoid it like Thelma and Louise avoid Texas!
I walk the half-mile to CVS to pick up some supplies. Another travel seized toothpaste, more sunscreen, some alcohol wipes to clean various cords and shit, and ibuprofen. I do my laundry while simultaneously trying to figure out the route across and engaging with my LA-based Iowan friends. Deb wants me to visit her whole family but maybe I should stay at her dad’s because he’s out in the country and her sister has 5 kids and her mom can’t accommodate me but she really wants to meet me. And Jess, who at this point I think is from Iowa City which is northwest of Muscatine, didn’t seem on the way (nor was it a full day’s ride) says her parents are offering me a place for a night. Not sure how all of this is gonna work. God, rest days aren’t restful. Unless you actually rest. Which I’m not really good at anyway.
First thing’s first: the blog. I can’t leave Muscatine, Iowa until I at least leave Ohio on the handlebarconfessional.com! Downstairs, Moxie and the front-desk chick help me figure out the bus downtown to the library. It’s more than 2 miles and my butt/knees are saying, don’t you get back on that bike, buster– so the bus it is. I have to walk all the way back to where “the mall” is (near CVS) to get it. Another passenger says, “I heard the library ain’t open. They’re moving buildings.”
“Well,” I say, “it says online they’re open today from 10 to 9, so hopefully…”
The new library building is gorgeous!… But doesn’t open until June 15, a week from today. Fuck me.
The woman who’s there putting books on the shelves hooks me up with the local community college. I can go there (it’s almost back where the hotel is – arrgh!) and get on wireless. (BTW Best Western does have internet but it’s soooo slowwww, and I want the silence of a library, dig?) Muscatine Community College’s student center closes at 5. I have no idea how to get back there besides to use Google maps and walk. I don’t feel like asking anyone. I check to see if Muscatine has Uber and they do – but it’s $7 for the 2-mile ride. Nah, I’ll hoof it.
Deb, one of the aforementioned Iowan Angelenos calls me then, and I tell her about Brenda in Ohio and try to explain what about my journey feels spiritual. (FYI: that day I’m planning to write this entry this entry, and I was bouncing ideas off Deb, trying to articulate my thoughts, see if I’m onto something intelligible and not masturbatory, but not just in a “if it makes sense to you, that’s all that matters sorta way” – because if I was just writing this for myself and didn’t care if anyone read it, then who cares if it’s a j-o session?) Deb listens patiently and confirms it sounds spiritual. Check!
My being out here makes Deb miss Iowa. Our original plan was that she’d do a family visit and would meet me in Des Moines, her hometown. But shit like that is hard to plan when you don’t know when you’re going to get to a place and life gets in the way… Instead, she’s going to help me figure out which family member of hers I can stay with in Des Moines. There are here nieces’ soccer games to contend with, and her dad’s out of town but I still might be able to stay at his place, but the stepmother needs to buy in etc. So, we hold off making any decisions until I can look at a map and she can feel out the fam.
I write for a while in the student center but forgot about having to eat and drink (not being on the bike…), so I quit for a bit. HANGRY.
I go back to my room, and eat a Clif bar. Before a meal, before re-looking at the map of Iowa, before more chatting with anyone about anything, I have to search for a route across Iowa on RideWithGPS. And I’m in luck. Easy as pie, just like when I searched for a Pittsburgh to Cleveland route. The route posted by a fellow with the handle johnnygunwent clear across the state to the Missouri River and was even subtitled Optional connector route via Iowa for the Northern Tier. Bam!
And a bonus is that the route goes through Iowa City so I can meet Jess’s parents after all and though it runs north of Des Moines, I’m sure I could make it work and hopefully stay at Deb’s dad’s place. And johnnygun’s route jogs northwest throughout the state so I’ll end up in Sioux City, far, far away from the sad strip joints of Council Bluffs. If I see Moxie tomorrow at breakfast, I’m gonna give her the full report. I end up cutting out 62 miles from the mileage bottom line. Uh oh. I hesitate. I converse with myself: WHY are you hesitating?? Wellll, then I’ll be on the Lewis and Clark Trail one day less, so… SO? What does that even mean? The hesitation lasts but a nanosecond. My rigidity melts away. The stars are pointing in one overall direction and it’s northwest, not straight across the bottom. I am not going to be an Iowa bottom feeder, and then get sucked in by the debauchery of the Council Bluffs underworld, hell no!
Ok, but now I’ve spent the whole day running around and nothing’s gotten done re: handlebarconfessional.
Arrgh. When do I rest?!
Still hangry (obviously), I walk to a Mexican joint to have an early dinner. Seems decent. The waiter is handsome (a Muscatine ‘9’). I order in Spanish hoping the waiter will ask me where I’m from, so I can say ‘I’m from LA!!’ as if that gives me some Mexican cred in Iowa. Ha! The chicken I order is …satisfactory, not as good as the place I went to in Illinois yet thumbs easily up.
I’m too tired from not resting on this rest day to write more blog. I’ll let the hotel desk know in the morning that I plan to stay another night, so I can get some real writing done.
As it turns out, Muscatine’s Best Western is a weekend destination for many thrillseekers, and, no, my room isn’t available for the next night. I have to check out in the morning. WTF?? And my plan to make Iowa City to stay with Jess’s parents my first post-Muscatine stop falls through, because they live in LAKE City, a tiny town clear on the other side of the state. It was Jess that lived in IC (after high school) – not her parents. Double WTF.
I search for a warmshowers host nearby to the hotel. I could at least stay another night here in Muscatine that way and work on finishing at least one blog entry. Awesome, there are a bunch of hosts! But … A couple says no because they’re out of town. One guy has to ask his wife. Dude, your wife will love me. Another who lives 6 miles out of town on a sheep farm (which sounds amazing!) doesn’t respond. Grrr. So I decide fuck it. IC is supposed to be the shit. There are a ton of warmshowers hosts there. I reach out to a couple of them. Whoever gets back to me first with a yes…(but I like the sound of this woman named Anne’s profile). But…Anne doesn’t get back to me first. …Not exactly first. …
Okay, I confess, I confess! I handlebarconfess! I did that dickish online hookup behavior with the couple who answered me first. Said I was waiting for some dude to ask his wife (which was true technically), but I was mostly waiting to see if Anne would hit me back in which case I’d make an excuse to the first couple and jump ship for greener pastures. Which is precisely what I did. (Later, Anne tells me that there’s a bit of lighthearted competition among the warmshowers hosts, so it’s a feather in her cap.)
Anne texted me as soon as she got my message, saying sure tonight would work. She and Larry would be back around 4pm after volunteering for something called Bike Library (Hmmmm. The volunteerism makes them sound even more promising and, even more so, WTF is a bike library? I must be schooled on this matter!)
Bye-bye Muscatine. You served your purpose.
The ride to IC from the hotel is 44 miles. It’s really muggy and hot. Not too sunny, yet very gross. Humidity to the exponent of 1,000. Blargh. I plug johnnygun’s blessed Across-Iowa route into my app and take off. There is pretty much nothin’ but corn ‘n beans between Muscatine and IC. Anne texts me that I should stop for ice cream at some place that I can’t find. Instead, I stop in West Liberty to take a leak at a cute little food market/café with kickass AC. The last several miles of the route into downtown IC are a bike trail into the city. Summer is definitely in full swing. Kids play sports while parents watch in the parklands along the Iowa River. Birthday parties. Grads and pre-Dads (It’s a week yet until Father’s Day). Cyclists riding hard and riding easy.
I reach downtown after encountering construction and a detour – with the RideWithGPS Joan honking her you’rescrewingup! signal over and over. STFU, lady! I park Whitey in front of a Starbucks. It’s open. I guess they’re ‘done’ with their one day of diversity training. I post my whereabouts (minus the Starbucks because I am merely outside of it, not in it) on Instagram.
Even though I still have an hour to kill before Anne and Larry, I ride over to their house. Since I just did laundry in Muscatine, it’s too early to muck up my kit. I’ll find a nook somewhere around their property to change into shorts.
Their neighborhood is in the city but is suburban feeling as so many Los Angeles neighborhoods are. As I ride the streets, I view lots of progressive-leaning signs and stickers. Anne and Larry’s front yard has a Rosa Parks quotation stuck into the earth. Iowa City is definitely a liberal and inclusive oasis in the Trump’s America Desert. Much like how I describe my ‘LA progressive bubble’ experience, IC is (Anne tells me later) similar.
I text Anne to let her know I’ve arrived and she says to make myself at home in the back yard where she and Larry have a tremendous garden: kale, garlic, strawberries, rhubarb, tomatoes, and a bunch of other stuff. There’s a nifty rainwater barrel system to capture the precipitation and use it for their produce, a good lot of which ends up getting munched by deer and rodents. I hide (poorly) in the yard to change out of my gear. I grab my laptop so I can crank out a few words before they return.
Anne arrives first. She’s tall, lanky, healthy, really good-humored, grew up in Marin County (right above San Francisco – but before it was the super-fancy high-income haven it is now), is widowed (sadly, the dog and the cat also died around the same time), and has 3 grown children. She is retired from her job as a writer for the University of Iowa, which is located in IC. Anne immediately shows me to ‘my’ room and I’m in the shower seconds later. We share a moment of ease and flow within the warmshowers world. I feel like I’ve got this part down pat – I don’t need to be apologetic or overly solicitous. Anne makes it easy. She and Larry, who live together in the house now that the kids have flown the coop, are quite the experienced bicycle tourists, so she gets it completely that I want to shower before the getting to know each other can truly commence.
After I shower and am settled with a glass of water in the living room, Larry arrives. He is an Iowa-born-and-bred, interesting, lovely guy, also retired (from something regarding water treatment plants and engineering and sales), with a bit of an oddball sense of humor…or was it? There were times throughout the evening that I couldn’t tell whether or not he was joking with me. For instance, Jess had told me to look up her close friend Pete, a bike mechanic who she lived with when she was in IC. I said I’d try but…you know how that goes. (Plus, I hate talking on the phone, particularly to strangers.) So, it turns out that Larry and Anne know the dude, and Larry says, “Let’s get Pete on the phone.” And I think, oh, you’re not serious, just calling up some random—and ten seconds later Larry’s phone is in my hand and I’m talking to Pete. During the evening we spend together, I realize that Larry means everything he says. He’s roguish, but seriousAF about everything bicycle! And Larry is definitely the rogue of the pair. He kept encouraging me to forego the ACA maps and forge my own way. (Even though I didn’t choose to do that in the end, his approach has definitely influenced my trip.) He also has three grown kids (older than Anne’s, so not a Brady Bunch situation), and took two of them as teenagers on a bicycle tour sometime in the 90s from Washington state (their trip started with huge mountain climbs) back to Iowa, without any of the technological bells and whistles, including warmshowers, that I’m benefiting from. Trial by fire! Throughout the evening he and Anne amused me to no end with all of their bike touring stories (here in the US, in Canada, in Mexico, throughout Europe), and I shared mine, too.
Anne and Larry seem a wonderfully matched pair. They possess a shared passion of cycling and also of bicycle advocacy. Anne is the more policy-oriented squeaky wheel. When she’s calling up city councilmembers, they know her – and they know what she’s calling about (i.e., bicycle infrastructure)! As an expert bike mechanic, Larry is focused more on the nuts and bolts (haha). They volunteer weekly for Bike Library, an organization whose mission it is to get more Iowa City people on bicycles. Their programs range from a literal lending library of bikes (you make a financial deposit, you can have the bike for 6 months, you either bring it back and get most of the deposit back minus a fee to support the organization, or you keep it), to receiving donations of bicycles and spare parts, to recycling scrap metal and rubber, to renting repair benches where people can work on their bikes (with some assistance), to refurbishing and selling bicycles at low cost, to partnering with youth development organizations in order to get used bicycles in good condition to kids who can’t afford a new one, etc. And they are a depository for bike donations. (BTW, they have way more bicycle/parts donations than they can handle. So, please donate funds instead of bikes.
Something I have in common with Anne and Larry is that the bicycle is their primary mode of transportation. They do own a car (for Costco runs and such), but even in the Iowa winters, they get on their bikes. Crazy for an Angeleno like me to fathom – though I’d certainly try it out. Anne explained that their aim (beyond just wanting to conduct their own lives using less fossil fuels and staying active) is to model that it can be done. True advocates!
After eating some snacks, Anne and Larry treated me to a night on the town. Larry, who is similar in height to me, lent me a Raleigh town bike (they have many, many bikes to cho, and we rode together to Devotay a tapas restaurant they love that features locally grown ingredients. The best meal I’ve had on the trip thus far! (And I am writing this almost 4 weeks into…The Future!) After gorging myself, we took a brief tour. We rode past Iowa’s original capitol building (before Des Moines usurped Iowa’s state capital-hood) and they took me to the Bike Library sites. I’ll let the pics speak for themselves.
When we got back to the house, we each had the final portions of Larry’s homemade strawberry-rhubarb cobbler (made from their own garden!) with vanilla ice cream. It was fantastic. In the morning, Larry made oatmeal with flax meal and chia seeds (Anne said, “This is the last you’ll have of this sort of stuff for a while.” Ain’t that the truth!) After photos and hugs, I rolled out, not worried about eating for at least the next several hours.
This connection is easily among my favorites of the trip and a good barometer for most of the rest of Iowa. In fact, I liked IC so much that I’ve even fantasized about applying to the Iowa Writers Workshop for an MFA in Creative Writing. I bet Larry and Anne would help me figure out cycling in the winter! (…if they’re not in Mexico – which I forgot to say earlier that they are spending the winters there now…so less need to ride a bike in the snow!)
I think Larry must’ve filled my tires when I wasn’t aware. The pressure held perfectly for the next 500 miles. Maybe it’s because Larry is some sort of cycling savant, mixed in with a bit of bike sorcery. Or maybe I just waited too long to put more air in them…
Day 19 was to get to Grinnell from Iowa City. Straightforward 70-plus miles. Larry and Anne tried to get me a host for that next evening (a friend who runs the local bike shop) – but he couldn’t accommodate me. I figured, Oh, it’s a college town, I bet I can just hang out on the corner with my loaded bike and look needy and some bike enthusiast couple will be out walking their big friendly dog and will call over to me, “Hey, come stay with us!” and I’d say, “Who, me?” and they’d say, “You bet!” And it would be like Anne and Larry, part II.
But I had miles to go before testing the likelihood of that scenario.
The weather was gray and still that morning. Believe it or not, the air was ever so slightly cool. There had been major thunderstorms at bedtime and through the night, but the weather report was pretty much clouds and meh. Maybe a smattering of thunderstorms. About 10 or 12 miles out, I passed the Iowa City Landfill and a sign that said ‘Construction, Local Traffic Only.’ Hmm. I’m basically local. I got me some IC cred now! Over the past couple of weeks, I’d seen similar signs, and I was able to get through, either with or without the assistance/blessings of a construction crew. After another couple of miles, I rode past another sign. This one read, ‘Road Closed Ahead.” Hmmmmmmm. ‘Closed’? What does that even mean? Closed. Larry would go for it, no question. Anne would be dubious but willing to try.
Five minutes later my feet and Whitey’s fenders are caked in mud. The road is not only closed, it is indeed not passable. The previous night’s rain has assured this, muddily. I trudge out. And start the process of removing the gunk from that evil space between the tire and fender that has harried me before!
But then… I hear a motor. I look east to the farm I passed a few minutes previously. An older man, a super nice Iowan farmer dude was on his way toward me riding on some sort of farm vehicle! Okay, just get over yourself. Don’t feel stupid. Clearly this man is coming in his outfit to help you pass the impassable! He is about sixty-five I’d say, dressed in jeans, flannel and trucker cap. I give a little yeah, I know sorta wave. He watches me for a minute clearing out the goo with my wrench, and says, “Well, you sure got yourself into a mess, didn’t ya.” It wasn’t a question, because he didn’t wait for an answer. He took off in his vehicle. So, either: 1) he just came to make sure I wasn’t stuck and when he saw I was okay, he zoomed back to the farm, or 2) he was totally fucking with me, or 3) both? In any case, grrr.
But it’s fine. I’m Mr. Intrepid Reasonable Risk-Taker Bicycle Adventurer! I don’t need his help. My tires are spin-able again, and I’m off. I have only added about 5 miles to the day. Now, I just have to figure out another way to get to Route 6, which is the road to Grinnell and all points west.
But there is no time to determine the next course of action. The sky is darkening, and it starts to rain. I start the (backward) journey, retracing my tracks, praying the weather doesn’t worsen. Rain is fine. Thunderstorms are not. I mean, I deserve to not have lightning, after the ‘Road Closed Ahead’ Mini-Debacle of June ‘18.
Instead of doing my bidding, the weather worsens. The rain and wind pick up speed, and I hear thunder.
Luckily, I’m not too far out of civilization. There’s a large brick building with some trees. I pull into the drive and cycle to the back of the building. It looks like it might be a nursing home or something. I huddle under the only awning. It’s the outdoor smoking section of whatever sort of institution this is. The smell of wet cigarette refuse abounds. I’m stepping in a pile of butts.
I have to take a leak, so I try the back door to the building. I wave at the security camera. It’s the same yeah, I know sorta wave I gave the farmer less than 20 minutes ago.
The door is unlocked! What is this place? Yes, it’s definitely an institution of sorts. There’s a cafeteria. Mostly empty, except for a few people seated solo at different tables. Others wander around in a hazy, medicated state. Aha. I see where I am. An aide gives me a can I help you? look, and upon hearing my request furnishes me with a key for the staff bathroom. Promotion!
Outside again, Anne texts me, “Oh man, I hope you’ve taken refuge somewhere.” I text her my plight with the road closure, and she and Larry suggest another way. The storm dissipates. I bid my new friend farewell again, via text and take off again.
Once I get back to the cross-Iowa route prescribed by johnnygun I ride through a bunch of small towns with eclectic names: South Amana, Ladora, Marengo, Victor, and finally Grinnell.
Grinnell is a college town, it seems, above all else. As the route approaches the campus, I think, Maybe some student will let me crash in their dorm room.And two seconds later, a realization: Oh my god, I’m too old to sleep on some 19-year-old’s futon in the common room. A horrific scenario pops into my thought bubble and then explodes:
I’m in Dakota’s dorm room. They think my cross-country ride is cool. (‘They’ corrected my misuse of pronouns. Fair enough. I’m totally down with non-binary.) I tell them that I’ll order them a pizza as a gesture of my gratitude. College kids love pizza, right? (And they don’t care if it’s ‘good pizza’!)
Dakota asks, “Can I invite Ainsley?”
Cut to me on the floor, cross-legged, still stinky in my kit, frantically looking on my iPhone for a local pizza joint that’s open, and Ainsley is stage-whispering to some other kids out in the hall (referring to me), “He’s as old as my dad!”
I pedal faster, passing the few remaining buildings of Grinnell College.
The rest of Grinnell looks nice. Small. Nothing is open at 6:30pm on Sunday. Empty, perhaps for the summer holiday. Empty except for the park where you’re allowed to camp. That is teeming with tons of families with kids. Aha, this is where someone will see my plight and invite me to—Wait a sec! What am I doing? Hanging out on a street corner in a tiny town in Iowa flashing my panniers, hoping someone will invite me home? The sky is gray, and it looks like it might rain again. The families in the park aren’t leaving.
Hotel. I text Anne thanks for the directions and that I made it and am going to find a hotel. “Sounds smart,” texts Anne.
Instead of the usual find-the-cheapest, I cave to the wiles of the smart hotel that I am standing directly in front of. Hotel Grinnell is housed in what used to be a school building, and they lean heavy on that theme. The hotel’s restaurant is The Periodic Table. Clever. There is a blackboard in the guest room. (For what, exactly? I write, “Thank you!” and draw an arrow to the tip I leave for the housekeeper.) The stationary has ‘Report Card’ as the heading. The guest information book is entitled ‘Primer.’ And the keycard to the room is a ‘Hall Pass.’ And on. But the hotel’s pretty spectacular. Comfortable bed. Cool industrial design. And S-S-S-SPARKLING WATER in the mini-fridge. I drink both bottles in 2 minutes flat (not ‘flat’, haha!). I don’t care how much it costs! At the moment I discover the sparkling water, I realize that the comfort of home I miss the most is my Soda Stream. Not a practical item for a bicycle tour. Okay, good night. I’m going to test out these white sheets (of paper) – get it? School theme! Hahahaha….zzzzzzz.