Days 34–39

Day 34: Chillicothe, IL to Cambridge, IL, 63 miles

Having gone off-route to stay in Chillicothe with the Myers, today I am relying on Google Maps to get me back on track. After a few miles, it directs me to Rock Island Trail, a lovely crushed gravel bike path lined with tall shade trees. For the first time on this trip, I decide some music is in order so I pop in my earphones. I’ve been wary of listening to music while riding because I want to be able to hear traffic, but that’s not an issue on this trail. Music, shade, no traffic to contend with — this is what it’s about. The miles fly by.

A hayfield in Illinois.

When I turn off the trail and away from the trees, I find that the temperature has risen significantly. In fact, it’s sweltering. Blistering. It’s so hot that I can hear the softened asphalt snapping underneath my tires. I notice that my shoes are sticking to my pedals and look down to see that the asphalt is sticking to my shoes, which are sticking to my pedals. It is literally so hot that the roads are melting.

So hot. Roads melting. Help.

I pull in to Cambridge, IL around 4:30 and find a gas station where I can fill my water bottles with ice water. Then I ride across town to the home of John and Stephanie Taylor, my Warmshowers hosts for the night. John shows me to the guest room and then disappears out back while I settle in and get cleaned up. Stephanie and their two adorable little boys, Miles and Anderson, arrive from grocery shopping and I sit on the porch with Anderson while Stephanie unloads the groceries. Anderson is two years old and very interested in his Lego police spaceship. The conversation is fascinating.

“Peece?” Anderson says, holding the spaceship up for me to see.

“Police,” I say.

“Peece?” Anderson says again, snapping off the wing and handing it to me to put back together.

“Police,” I said, reassembling the ship for him.

It goes on like this for 15 minutes. Cute kid. Very focused.

After dinner and apple pie a la mode, I chat with John a bit and learn that he works for a defense contractor where he oversees a team that collects data about one specific weapon, a canon of some kind. In their spare time, he and Stephanie host house concerts slash pot lucks (learn more here).

A bandstand in Orion, IL.

Day 35: Cambridge, IL to Davenport, IA, 42 miles

After two weeks of riding, I decide to head for Davenport, IA where I plan to take a rest day at the home of the Miners. My dad went to high school with Pat Miner, and I’ve been to their home once before. I remember a giant old house with tall trees, rope swings, and a beautiful view of the river. I’m eager to see how accurate my memory is. After a gas station breakfast of two doughnuts, a Clif bar, a banana, and a coffee, I ride the 40 miles from Cambridge to Davenport, arriving just after noon to find the house exactly as I remembered it.

The Miner’s awesome house in Davenport.

Pat shows me to the guest apartment above the kitchen where I have my own bedroom and bathroom. I get cleaned up and then head downstairs where I chat with Pat, Roxane, and their son Paul over a lunch of salad and sandwiches. Pat tells me a story about a time in high school when my dad killed a giant rattlesnake. “Bit his head clean off,” according to Pat, who later amends this claim to “chopped his head off with a shovel.” (Later, I ask dad about this, but he has no memory of it. I’m choosing to accept the “bit his head clean off” version as historically accurate.)

After lunch, I get out my computer so that I can register for classes and order books for school (!). The whole grad school thing still doesn’t feel real yet. I’ve been so focused on this trip, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it. One thing at a time.

Myself, Roxane, and Pat. Thanks for letting me crash!

I take a long well-deserved nap in the comfy guest bed while outside, a sudden short downpour soaks Davenport. “I’m happy I’m not riding in that,” I think as I drift off.

Pat grills burgers for supper and after we play several rounds of The Game of Things with Roxane and three of their eight kids: Paul, Brian, and Sam. Brian is headed to Australia for study abroad later this summer, so kangaroos become a running gag in the game which, if you’ve never played, is pretty fun.

Day 36: Davenport rest day

Today is a full rest day in Davenport. I decide to start things off right by going to the best coffee shop in town, Redband Coffee. It’s about a fifteen-minute walk from the Miner’s and Google tells me it has excellent breakfast sandwiches, so I walk down the steep hill to downtown Davenport. I order the chorizo breakfast sandwich and a black coffee and when they arrive, I am surprised to find that the only seating option is a picnic table covered in rain from the previous day. I head across the street to the shade of an apartment building and park myself right on the sidewalk to eat my breakfast. I’m sure I look like a complete dork — with my tan lines, unshaven legs, and rumpled clothes — eating breakfast on the sidewalk, but I don’t really care. Despite the lack of seating, I will say that Redband’s breakfast sandwich is one of the best I’ve ever had — and the coffee was pretty good, too. If you find yourself in Davenport around breakfast time, definitely stop by.

Redband Coffee in Davenport.

After breakfast, I wander through downtown Davenport to the visitor center (which is not open yet), the art museum (also not open yet), and the riverfront park (which is open because it’s a park). I find another coffee shop where I sit for awhile and write, killing time until the art museum opens. The coffee here isn’t as good, but they have chairs and tables and outlets and wifi, so those are all plusses. Next, I wander back to the Figge Art Museum, which has free admission through September. There’s an exhibit about The Wizard of Oz and one about the American prairie, both of which seem very fitting for an art museum in Iowa. The building itself is quite beautiful, but I’m not terribly impressed with their permanent collection. I’ve been spoiled by the St. Louis Art Museum and all the museums I visited in Europe when I was studying abroad.

Snaps from the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. Corn, wheat fields, and prairie flora.

When I’m done at the museum, I head down the street to an Indian restaurant that serves a lunch buffet. In Rensselaer, Carol and Colin proclaimed the lunch buffet as the bike tourist’s best friend, so even though I am not riding today, I decide to stop there. I’m glad I did. All the naan, pakora, rice, korma, curry, tikka masala, fruit, rice pudding, and gala jamun I can eat. Which, as it turns out, is a lot. This is the first time on this trip that I have felt uncomfortably full. I head back to the Miner’s to lie down for awhile.

After a delicious dinner of grilled salmon, the family disperses to their individual books or devices and I take the opportunity to watch an episode of Game of Thrones before bed.

Davenport has some seriously steep hills.

Day 37: Davenport, IA to Iowa City, IA, 55 miles

I wake up, pack my panniers, and head downstairs to find Pat cooking breakfast. The weather has cooled off so we eat on the back porch, which overlooks the Mississippi River. I feel rested and ready to tackle the 70 miles I have planned to ride, so I thank the Miners and head out of town on the route Pat suggested.

The weather is relatively cool and the wind is manageable and I’m feeling confident that I will make it to Cascade, IA when suddenly, tragically, I hear the distinct twang of another spoke popping on my back wheel. That’s it. I’ve had it. This thing has got to go. I stop in Bennet, where I get lunch at a gas station and consult my map for the nearest bike shop. The nearest shop on-route is four days away, but there are shops in Iowa City, which is twenty five miles off-route. Not willing to ride on a broken spoke for four days, I call a shop in Iowa City (aptly named The Broken Spoke) and speak to the owner, Michael, about getting a new wheel. He says he can build me a new wheel today so I put down a deposit and turn west, expecting to arrive in about three hours.

One mile outside of Bennet, Google puts me on a gravel road which turns out to be not so much gravel as rock. My bike fishtails on the descents and the tires slip on the ascents, and I am forced to walk often. The sun is pounding down and the afternoon is slipping away and my frustration levels are rising. The only other option Google provides is Interstate 80 and there is absolutely no way I am riding on that, so I just keep struggling and fighting the gravel-which-is-rock. It’s so deep, I have trouble walking on it.

I have never ridden on a road this bad and I am desperate to get off it. I debate calling a taxi from Iowa City, but that seems too expensive. I debate hitching, but there’s not much traffic. I debate throwing my bike into a ditch, lying down in the grass, and letting nature take its course, but that seems overdramatic. I am so angry that I want to hit something, but there’s nothing to hit, so I just pick up a handful of the godforsaken gravel-which-is-rock and throw it as hard as I can. It doesn’t help. I am still stuck on this gravel road, in the sweltering afternoon heat, trying to get to a city twenty-five miles off-route so that I can spend almost $200 on a new wheel. I am now a full day behind where I wanted to be.

This is the worst day.

At 5:20pm, on a different but equally as terrible gravel road, I call Michael and tell him I will not make it to his shop before he closes at 6pm. I am only 7 miles away but at the rate I’m going, I’m pretty sure I will grow old and die on this gravel road. He tells me to call back around 6pm, that he might be able to stay a little late to make sure I get the wheel. Mercifully, I hit pavement soon after and when I call Michael at 6pm, I am only 10 minutes away from the shop. I book it over there and arrive drenched in sweat, covered in dust, and completely exhausted. Several riders are waiting around to start their weekly group ride, and I feel bad for making them all wait. Michael puts on my new wheel (hand-built, 36 spokes, $190, better last forever) and I thank him, trying to express my gratitude despite my exhaustion.

I put my panniers back on my bike and roll down the street to Jimmy John’s where I demolish a giant sandwich, chips, and a soda and try to regain my composure. I have a place to stay tonight with the niece of my mother’s coworker (who, coincidentally, owns the bike shop right next to The Broken Spoke — a fact I did not learn until after I’d put a deposit down on my new wheel), so after I finish eating I head to her place. I feel bad that I didn’t buy my new wheel at her shop, but I am grateful for a hot shower and a comfortable bed after the day I’ve had.

Day 38: Iowa City, IA to Cascade, IA, 60 miles

Today, Google once again puts me on gravel roads. These are more manageable than yesterday’s but still no fun to ride. In the afternoon, I come to a point where I must choose whether to continue to ride on gravel or to ride on the shoulder of a two-land divided highway. I opt for the highway. The shoulder is relatively wide, but the traffic often doesn’t move over even when there is room for them to do so. I ride 17 miles without stopping, counting down the miles in my head as I go: “Ten more miles until I can get off this road… Nine more miles until I can get off this road…”

The cursed gravel roads of Iowa.

Finally, I make it to Cascade, my original destination for the previous night. I check in at town hall and then head to the town park where I shower in the pool locker rooms and set up camp next to the baseball diamond. It’s been a hard couple of days, and I am happy to finally be back on the Northern Tier route.

Snaps from camping in the town park in Cascade, IA.

Day 39: Cascade, IA to Elkader, IA, 65 miles

Despite my best intentions of setting out around 7am, I leave Cascade around 8:20am and head north. I plan to ride 65 miles to Elkader and then, if I feel up to it, another 20 miles to Monona. The road is hot and full of hills. There are some serious hills in Iowa. I hit one descent that must be three-quarters of a mile, with steep grade warning signs, and it is pure bliss.

The hills of Iowa.

I pass by the Field of Dreams site outside of Dyersville, but I don’t stop. I’ve never seen the movie and besides, it’s hot and I still have many miles to go. In Dyersville, I find a coffeeshop where I order a sandwich and cool off for a bit, before getting back on the road.

I pass the carcass of a tortoise that must be a foot and a half long, nowhere near water. I wonder where it came from. Later, a deer crosses the road half a mile ahead of me. As I ride past her, she turns and races alongside the road. I pick up the pace trying to match her, but she quickly speeds ahead and crosses the road in front of me, bounding away into a cornfield. Near Elkport, I see a bald eagle. But the last bit of wildlife I encounter today is the saddest. A maroon Toyota Camry passes me and as it disappears into the distance, I notice a shape moving on the road. As I get closer, I can see it is a raccoon, freshly hit. It lies in the center of the road writhing in a pool of its own blood, struggling to get up and failing. It is still very much alive, but I know that it won’t survive. I wish there’s something I could do for it but there isn’t. All I can do is ride past. Such is life on the road.

I arrive in Elkader at 3:45pm and wander into a Subway, thinking a break and a sandwich might give me the energy I need to crank out 20 more miles. By the time I ride over to the town park to check out the campsite, it’s nearly 5pm and although I probably could do another 20 miles, I find that I really just don’t want to. I pay the camp fee — ending my 14-day streak of free lodging, darn — and set up camp. I shower and rinse out my clothes and spend the rest of the night writing and munching on granola and dried fruit.

Although I am a day behind where I wanted to be when I left Davenport, I am glad to be back on the official route and headed towards Minneapolis. Here’s hoping that I don’t run into any more mechanical issues or gravel roads ever again.

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