In my haste to go to bed at the schoolhouse-themed Hotel Grinnell, I forgot to mention that Deb came through with the best idea for a place to stay in Des Moines for Day 20. For various reasons, her family members weren’t able to accommodate me (her dad was mortified that he couldn’t help and offered to pay for a hotel room for me, which was nice but unnecessary), but I was under strict guidance from Deb that I must let her mom, Mary, take me out for a meal. Deb had contacted a mutual friend of ours in LA, Paul Engler, who’s from Des Moines. Paul and Deb went to high school together.
I met both these brilliant souls at the same time five years ago at The Relational Turn, a conference of community organizers/activists, urban planners, community mental health therapists/social workers, and other social/environmental justice-oriented leaders. The conference was on —hmm, how shall I describe? — promoting sustainable communities through forging creative and supportive partnerships among activists working within different types of institutions and different disciplines. Ya know…learning from and supporting each other and all that. What were you doing there, you might ask? I’m not entirely sure. Part of it was conducting a workshop on the possible role of harm reduction practice as a tool to support some of the more marginalized members of a community, as in: we’re only as strong as our most vulnerable, blah blah blah. (I remember the title of my workshop: No Undesirable Left Behind, which I think is kinda clever. Sometimes you look back at stuff like that and it’s like what were you thinking?!) My other role at the conference seemed to be making squeaky-wheel statements in the larger group like: “I have no idea what any of you are talking about, so if we want this movement to be successful, can we try to make it more intelligible?” And, btw, if you want to read an excellent, remarkably insightful and perfectly intelligible book that contextualizes and lays bare the stories, misconceptions, and dynamics of nonviolent social justice movements, read the book that Paul and his brother Mark wrote: This Is an Uprising.
Oh, shit! Rabbit hole! Let’s get back to Iowa by bike.
Paul’s mom, Joan, runs an Airbnb in the upper floor of her duplex in Des Moines’s leafy Ingersoll Park neighborhood (or is it Westwood?), and since she didn’t have any lodgers for the next few days, she was willing to let me stay at no cost. (I of course offered to pay, but she refused.) I called Joan before I crashed the previous night to solidify plans. More about Joan in a sec, but one thing I noticed right away was her accent. She grew up on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin, and her accent is so strong that at first, I thought she was from Europe somewhere, maybe Germany. She does have German ancestry (like many, many midwestern farm people), and she’s 100% Wisconsin.
Hotel Grinnell includes breakfast, and it’s good. Yogurt, instant oatmeal, two stink-bomb hard-boiled eggs – and an orange, apple, banana and a PBJ sandwich for later. It’s fewer than 70 miles to Joan’s place in Des Moines, so I’m not too concerned about eating a ton. I use the johnnyg RideWithGPS route to start out. I’m still following Route 6. This should be easy. It’s gray and warm out and threatening to rain. “Scattered thunderstorms” set to begin their scattering around 2pm. I should be in Des Moines by then.
After 5 miles of thinking what an easy-breezy day this is going to be, especially since I have an gentle easterly tail wind to support me, I come upon another ‘ROAD CLOSED’ sign. Aargh! NOT AGAIN.
Okay…last time I went with the I can get through any barrier! impulse, which was a mistake – and since I am a titanic sponge who learns from his mistakes, I don’t ignore the sign. This time, however, is different. There are visible Detour 6 West signs…that send me east, into the wind which is way less gentle when it’s LOUD, and up a hill. But I must obey. What would Anne and Larry, my Iowa City cycling mavenistas/warmshowers hosts, do? Anne would follow the signs. Larry would look at a map. In fact, Larry gave me a map of Iowa’s vast network of cycling routes! But it’s packed away in my rear pannier. Never mind. I follow the signs…
…right onto Interstate 80 (aka ‘I-80’ or ‘the 80’ or ‘Route 80’ or, most simply, ‘80’). (Ma, if you’re reading this, avert your eyes!) The shoulder on I-80 is very wide, way ampler than the space allotted on Route 6, so there’s that in the pro column. And there are rumble strips protecting me, sort of. At the very least, a sleeping truckdriver will be awoken by the rumble strips a nanosec before he runs me over. He’ll see me as he hits me, causing irreversible trauma that will keep him in agony, suffering flashbacks of the moment of my demise for the rest of his days. I’ll be dead, but at least my negligent murderer will suffer.
I figure, it’s the interstate, sure, but I’m reasonably near a city [60 miles from Des Moines] and there’s obviously an exit ramp at every mile, so I’m certain the detour will have me exit at the very next opportunity, in a mile or so. Wrong! The next exit (and continuation of the detour) was six miles away. You gotta do what you gotta do. When Donny took his bicycle on the train in 2009 to meet me in San Luis Obispo, California to ride the final 220 miles into Los Angeles with me, we had a brief spell on the 101 freeway just past Lompoc. Donny even hates driving on the freeways, so he was quite flipped out to ride his bike on one. And then he got a flat right when we were exiting, so it was pretty hairy. Read about that episode here: Day 58: The Bony Claw of the Mancini Curse. [Note: I misremembered the events of that day. It was a broken spoke, not a flat, and it happened well after we exited the freeway, not while we were on it. But still worth a read!]
Ok, snap back to 2018!
…I had the wind pushing me along Route 80. It was a fast 6 miles, to be sure, and after a brief spell on a connector road, I was back on track. I stopped to eat something at mile 35 in the city park of the minute hamlet of Ira. Took a leak in a legendarily noxious port-a-potty. Sorry, have to share. Part of the experience. For the subsequent 27 miles I was on the Chichaqua Valley Bike Trail! Thank you, Iowa. For sure, Iowa is serious about being a bicycle-friendly state. It isn’t just Anne and Larry. Bike trails are wonderful for many reasons: no cars (obvs), animals are alive and not road meat (lots of bunnies!!!—er, I mean rabbits, man—on this particular trail), tree canopies, bridges that emit that pleasant scent of wet wood, they often cut diagonally through the farm roads, which cuts off a bit of time if you’re lucky, etc. This one – and many others in Iowa – also sport a multitude of blackberry bushes. I mentioned this in an earlier post (out of sequence!) but it’s staggering how many there are, and how they splattered my yellow panniers with black juice. I stopped a few times to partake. How could I not? What a waste to let the ants have all that sweet.
And like the previous days in Iowa, all those whimsical sounding town names: Mingo, Valeria, Santiago, Bondurant.
…I just decided something. You are all the first to know! I’m going to have four children, and their names will be Mingo (she’s the eldest and wholesomely responsible, helps her siblings with their homework, which is great because she’s not that clever, learns much better when she’s teaching lessons to the others; she is, however, quite talented with flora and fauna, tending to the plants and animals as well as her teacherly chores), Valeria (she’s the sleepy one, gosh, can’t get her up for school in the morning, that one, and quiet! barely makes a peep all day long), Santiago (he’s a born fantasizer, can’t never keep them feet on the ground nor his head from the rainclouds nor his eyes from wandering up to the yellow sun, staring directly into its rays and burning his little corneas into bacon bits), and little Bondurant (well, he’s the littlest one but very, very soldierly).*
*Note: This section is a typical answer to the oft-asked question: What is going through your mind on your bike for so many hours?
One other random thought: these signs were everywhere in Iowa and proliferated more so in the western part of the state. I kept thinking it said “JOVA” instead of “IOWA.”
…Wait, what’s Jova? EXACTLY. I fell for it every time.
Do me a favor. Make the pic of this sign big on your screen and then go as far as you can away from it, either across the room or down the hall or outside. Now, mime riding a bicycle and let your eye catch the image of the sign once it comes into view and I dare you to tell me that you didn’t think for a second that it reads JOVA BYWAYS. Let me know how it goes! (firstname.lastname@example.org post a comment)
So…once I hit the city of Des Moines I am back on the road. And boy what a tour johnnyg’s route is! The coppery capitol dome, downtown’s Pappajohn Sculpture Park, sleek bridge over the Des Moines River, other cool sites that I have no idea what it is I’m seeing but I’m excited nonetheless – and road construction everywhere, it must be said. (I have since been woke to the fact that there’s so much construction in the Midwest during the summer because the weather is too terrible for the rest of the year. Oh, duh! *pops himself in the head. a little too hard. that actually hurt!*)
When I arrive at Joan’s two-story brick house, there is a big fancy Buick parked in the driveway. On the phone, she told me that she was going to be out at her book club and to just let myself in the back door. So, based on my assumption that she had not yet returned– and knowing from Paul that his mother lives very simply – I figured this lustrous vehicle must belong to someone else. I am wrong. Later, I will tell her that I assumed the Buick wasn’t hers, and we both have a big laugh about it. The car’s provenance is an interesting story and indicative in almost a paradoxical way of how committed she is to her work of caring for elderly and ill people. For decades, she worked for organizations that provide services for seniors and has continued to volunteer well into retirement. And not just now and again volunteerism; she is selflessly dedicated (maybe a bit to her own detriment, because of how relied upon she is by so many at 76 years old herself). About the Buick: Joan cared for a man for 20 years as a volunteer. This man was a successful car dealer. When the man died, he made a provision in his will that his family must purchase a top-of-the-line Buick for Joan to replace her old car.
“I don’t even know what half of this is for or how to use it!” Joan told me, gesturing to the busy dashboard when that evening she drove me to pick up some groceries and grab dinner together at Gateway Market, which, she assumed correctly, I would want to patronize as her sons do because of Gateway’s organic produce and healthy prepared food options.
Joan has an incredible story. She’s from a large Catholic farming family in Wisconsin, as I mentioned, is the oldest of many siblings, and became a nun. During a ministry (can’t remember where/what specifically), she met a priest – and they fell in love, got married and had three sons. Her husband passed away suddenly on Christmas Eve when Paul was 9 years old. Though she is shy, even retiring, Joan is a fierce (nonviolent) activist, advocate for people living in poverty, and longtime political protester.
During dinner, we exchange ancestry stories, and I point to something about mine that I haven’t ever quite articulated before, though it’s not really unique nor elusive. All four of my grandparents are/were first-generation Americans. All of their parents emigrated to the US during the immigrant-welcoming heyday of the late 1880s-1900. [Insert anti-Trump comment here.] My great-grandparents were from different regions of Europe (or, more specifically, Russia and what are now the European countries of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Germany), so you’d think that there might be some difficult linguistic or cultural barriers to overcome, if, say, you were a woman from Poland and you meet a dude from Russia. But Jewish immigrants of that period all spoke a common language, Yiddish, so it didn’t matter where in the old country you were from, you still could communicate. And they all left the old country for the same reason: cuz they were poor and life in the shtetl sucked unless you were the super-learned and respected Rabbi. Now that I’ve been asked by many more people out in rural America where my people come from, I respond with the above. Gives a pretty specific picture.
The apartment where I stay above Joan’s is quiet and modest, like Joan herself – and is a comfortable home base to stay an extra night to work on Handlebar Confessional. She used to rent it out to tenants but enjoys the short-term-ness and flexibility of Airbnb. And it was mine for a couple nights. I text Paul thanking him profusely and singing his mom’s praises; I do the same with Deb, who is the person responsible for hooking me up with Joan. She’s unspeakably amazing, I text Deb. She’s a fucking guru.
She is, Deb responds. That house is a place that helped grow all of us.
On Day 21, Deb’s mom Mary, picks me up at Joan’s and takes me for breakfast at a funky place called Waveland Café. Mary is an utter delight. I have more coffee than usual, and we chat easily for over an hour about Iowa politics, her Lutheran church’s slow yet now full embracing of same-sex marriage, the book I’m writing, her work as a school counselor (from which she is now happily retired) where she piloted a successful anti-bullying program that has been replicated in other school districts, my spiritual journey through Trumplandia, and of course how fantastic Deb is.
Like Joan, Mary spends a lot of her retirement life caring for elderly people and other church activities that help out people in need. These Iowa women I’m meeting are incredible advocates.
Mary drops me off at a café recommended by Deb where I can hack away at H-bar C-fess, and I spend the next several hours writing this beast. I have forgotten my earbuds which makes focus for me nearly impossible, and I’m amazed at how many people at neighboring tables are talking about politics. Not in an argumentative nor preaching to the choir sort of way. Just discussing. Are we near some sort of political think tank? Or a university? Or is it just in Iowa’s blood because of the its swing-/purple-/primary-caucus-state ontology?
Though it’s hot, I walk the 2 miles back to Joan’s. She’s had an oral surgery procedure that day and I don’t want to call for a ride. Or Mary either. I know they’d have been happy to, but…
I have been in communication with Jess’s parents. Remember the ones I thought were in Iowa City but as it turns out were in Lake City? As it turns out, Lake City is on the way to Sioux City on the Missouri River and where I’d be jumping onto the Lewis and Clark Trail. The plan is to visit Leisa and Mike Mayer the next night and crash with them. I’ve been in touch with Leisa via text, and she expresses unbridled excitement to accommodate me, even offers to drive me from anywhere en route if the weather becomes terrible or if I’m too tired. I wonder if I will ever become accustomed to the infinite geyser of goodwill I’m being presented with at every turn. I’ve also had Donny send me a couple necessities (refills of prescriptions, chamois cream and electrolyte tabs), and Leisa has written to alert me that they’ve arrived. I don’t think I have any other friends in LA from Iowa besides Deb, Paul and Jess. By the time I leave the state, I will have spent time with at least one of their parental units!
I say goodbye to Joan in the morning of Day 22. Because I am off the RideWithGPS across-Iowa route, I decide to use mapmyfitness.com which is the website I normally create my own routes from; I am not a big fan of the mapmyfitness app generally but it seems the best choice for the day. Way easier than RideWithGPS in terms of creating the route for sure. I punch in Joan’s address in Des Moines and then click on the point at which I’ll spend many miles once again on Iowa’s bike trails. But, hmm, this is strange. The whole ride is only 90 miles. I had thought it was 96. That’s strange for sure but also awesome! I power up the app, and I. Just. Can’t. Figure. IT. OUT!! I take about 20 minutes trying to get the green dot (me) onto the blue line (the route). #fail. How can I be ON fucking 51stStreet but NOT be on it?!… I ride a block this way, and that way. Time is ticking. Wasting away! It’s getting hot. It’s rush hour on Ingersoll Boulevard, which isn’t typical rush hour in larger cities, but it’s still a main artery with car after car after car driving 40mph and hard to cross over and over and over again in my lame attempts to bend reality to my will and get that fucking green dot to—
Wait one sec…oh…There is more than one 51stStreet. That’s the 6-mile difference right there.
So much for a mini-bonus of a destination being closer than I originally thought. I’m off and climbing hills out of Des Moines, through a suburb or two, and back into Corn ‘n Beans Iowa. At mile 14, in the town of Waukee I cheerfully jump onto the Raccoon River Valley bicycle trail. In Iowa City, Larry had shown me this as a route heading northwest out of Des Moines. I remember him saying, “You’ll be on the trail all the way to Jefferson.” That didn’t seem a big deal at the time, but as I pedal past mile 20, 30, 40, 50 and finally 60, I see how valuable this bike path is. I pass several towns which celebrate their piece of the bike trail pie. Despite the length, the ride is easy, due in large part to weather that even Goldilocks would tolerate (not too hot, not too sunny, not too humid, not too windy). It looks like I might arrive too early. Leisa, Jess’s mom, has of course alerted me to the ubiquitous Unlocked Back Door of the Midwestern Home. I can let myself in if neither she nor Mike is home yet to greet me. In Glidden (about 12 miles from Lake City), I see a place for an ice cream cone and stop to grab a vanilla-chocolate twist and some ice water. (This is something so far exclusive to Iowa: even the tiniest town has a burger shack selling soft ice cream. Some convenience stores have it, too!)
Back on Whitey J, about 5 miles from my destination, I can’t get Hey Jude out of my head so I’ve relented and am humming it over and over. A few hundred yards away is a large blue pickup driving towards me. The truck makes a left onto a gravel road, turns around, and stops to my right as I near it. A bald white guy with a bushy white beard is smirking at me. I think of the Iowa farmer who pulled up to me a couple days before while I was clearing mud from my fenders and said, “Looks like you got yourself into a mess.” Not in the mood for that sort of interaction. I keep pedaling.
This guy’s still watching me.
Oh, what is this now? Is he fucking with me?
“Are you tired of riding yet?” the dude calls out.
There is no way to respond except truthfully. “Nope,” I say, all neutral, all guarded. I’m successful. The pickup turns around and heads north.
After a second or two, I think, was that Jess’s dad?! I’m 95% sure. Which minutes later is confirmed. I still would have finished the ride, for sure – no cheating! We all had a chuckle about it.
I’ve known Jess for about 5 years. Donny met her first when he went into a random barber shop. Jess has been shearing both our heads for the past several years. I of course knew that she grew up in Iowa, but I only recalled her connection to Iowa City where she moved after high school. I didn’t realize that she had grown up in such a small town (Lake City, population 1,727, which compared to a lot of the places I’ve been lately isn’t that small). If you met her, you’d be surprised she is such a country girl by origin, being both super-stylish and queer-identified. Both Leisa and Mike confirmed that she was destined to leave Lake City behind from the moment she popped out of the womb. I, too, knew from a young age that I had to get the hell outta Dodge. My ‘Dodge’ was the suburbs, whereas Jess’s is a lot closer to the real thing.
Jess promised that I would love her parents, and I did and do. I felt particularly at ease that evening, especially after a rest day and a relatively easy 96-mile ride and being in the presence of a couple of lovely, openminded and good-humored Iowans. We laughed quite a bit. I took a photo of a collage of pics of Jess and texted them to her. Oh, noooooooo! was the response. I sent it to Donny, too. Leisa was breathlessly accommodating, endlessly listing stuff I could do or have: laundry, hangers for the stuff that needed hanging, a shower, a fan plugged in for after the shower cuz it’s hot (which is a really great idea, by the way – stealing!), the best chair in the house, plugs for all my devices, a nap, fruit, other food items, a ride to the grocery store to get whatever I needed that they didn’t have, a ride to the next town, a ride to Portland, a ride home. I thought, I better take her up on as much as possible or she might chase me down!
Like everybody else’s mom I’ve met in Iowa, Leisa’s life’s work is community-oriented; she’s a mental health social worker, working at the local prison. She has served many different populations during her years in the field, and her current position is the most satisfying. I tell her about the federal proposal I wrote recently for a client to build their services for trans- and cis-females reentering their communities upon release from the LA County jail system. Leisa says that next time she’s visiting Jess in LA, she wants to tour the jail system. The LA Sheriff’s Department is really trying to improve their health services, so maybe there’d be something cool for her to see to bring back to Iowa.
Mike is semi-retired. Currently, he has enough handyman/maintenance jobs to keep himself busy but not overly so. Mike is the resident cook and whipped up a superb dinner: a steak, potatoes, corn, salad. (And he baked some blueberry muffins before I even woke up the next morning!) Also, he is strong. Example: It was going to rain that night, so Leisa suggested I bring the bicycle inside – up a few steps onto their deck and into the laundry room. Hmm, ok. How am I going to get the bike up the stairs without having to ask for too much help? However, Mike is right there, and while I splutter, “Ok so how are we gonna…oh ok then yeah I’ll grab the front and you can…oh I see what you’re… but I’m not even helping,” Mike has lifted up Whitey Jackson and carried him up the stairs.
After a night of gabbing and joking around, I sleep well in a bedroom upstairs with creepy teenage angst drawings by Jessica Mayer, Southern Calhoun High School, Grade 10, hanging on the back of the door.
It’s storming out now. Haha, Thunder and Lightning, you can’t get me!