Day 40: Elkader, IA to Lansing, IA, 61 miles
Iowa has mountains. Technically, they’re called “bluffs” but they are as steep as anything I faced in the White Mountains, though shorter. The day is boiling hot, and I am thoroughly drenched in sweat. Drenched, I tell you. After a steep and twisty descent into the town of Marquette, the route turns north following the Mississippi river. In some areas the river is deep and swiftly flowing and in others, it smooths out into wide marshes and wetlands. It’s lined with mobile homes built up on concrete stilts, and I wonder as I ride past whether they are vacation homes or permanent homes. What an odd place to live, directly on a river. On this river. The American river.
As the route swings away from the river, something about the valley plain — a wide expanse of tall grasses spotted with trees and surrounded by steep bluffs — reminds me of Akagera National Park in Rwanda. I half-expect to see a giraffe loping along in the distance or a hippo rise up from the reeds. But alas, this is Iowa and there is no such wildlife here. Just the odd chipmunk and one lone cow standing in a front yard that has no fence.
When I arrive in Lansing, I sit down in the shade next to a grocery store to see if I can work up the energy to ride another 25 miles. I want to try for 85 miles — to see if I can, to reach my 10th state, to make the next few days a little shorter — but the heat has completely sapped my energy. I ride two miles out of town to the Red Barn campground and set up camp. The restaurant here serves ice cream, and a chocolate shake seems like the perfect cure for this heat. I down it in record time and then return to my tent and crash.
Day 41: Lansing, IA to Winona, MN, 63 miles
I wake up tired and don’t want to move, so I just lie in my tent staring at the condensation on the orange rainfly. I finally work up the energy to get up and head to the bathroom but on the way there, I slip on some mud. My foot slides right through my sandal, ripping off half the nail on one of my left toes. Today is going to be one of those days, I can just tell.
The wind today is bad but thankfully, the road along the Mississippi is relatively smooth and hill-free. Still, for some reason, I have no energy and it takes everything I’ve got to get to Winona, MN. In La Crescent, I stop at Kwik Trip for a burger and chips, thinking maybe lack of energy is due to low sodium. I sit in the shade next to the gas station to eat—something I find myself doing quite a lot these days—and when I am ready, I get back on the bike and continue north.
I arrive at the home of Rob and Melissa, my Warmshowers hosts in Winona, at precisely 5:30pm. Melissa cooks a delicious supper of brown rice and vegetables with salad and homemade bread. They have another Warmshowers guest, Bill, who has been bike touring all across the world for several decades. Over supper, he gives me advice about taking the Amtrak across North Dakota (something I am strongly considering) and later greases my pedals so that I will be able to take them off when I box my bike for the train. Rob noticed that my Warmshowers profile mentioned my love of doughnuts, so he makes homemade cinnamon rolls and sets them aside to rise for the morning.
Day 42: Winona, MN to Red Wing, MN, 62 miles
This morning when I get up, Rob is whipping up omelettes with pesto, onions, and mushrooms. The cinnamon roll dough didn’t rise enough, he tells me, so the omelette will have to do. It is delicious and once again, I am grateful for the generosity and hospitality of these complete strangers. We take a photo for Rob and Melissa’s Warmshowers wall and then I am off, riding north towards Lake City.
On Bill’s advice, I stick to Highway 61 and don’t turn off where the map says to. This way, I shave off some miles and make it to Lake City by early afternoon. The day is still young, so I decide to continue on to Red Wing, where I know there is a Warmshowers. I send the host a quick message and get back on the road. Highway 61 is busy but the shoulder is wide and flat, so riding is easy, if not terribly scenic. I pull into Red Wing and wander around town for a bit before I receive a text from Zach, the Warmshowers host. He has two other tourists staying with him but tells me that he has an extra bed he can set up.
At Zach’s I meet Jo and Paul, two Brits who are two and a half years in to their around-the-world bike tour honeymoon. They set out from England in 2014 and headed east, riding through Europe and up into Scandinavia through the Middle East, China, South Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and finally to the U.S. They’ll finish riding in New York and then return to England in September. They are both very kind and wonderful to talk to, and I enjoy hearing their stories about life on the road. Jo makes a delicious pasta supper to share, and then Zach takes us all out for beers and deep fried cheese curds at a local pub.
When we return to the house, Zach lights a fire on the patio and we sit up late talking and enjoying the night air. One of the best things about Warmshowers — aside from the comfortable beds, hot showers, and meals — is the people I meet. Riding solo can sometimes get monotonous, and I relish the opportunity to be around other people and get out of my own head for a little bit.
Day 43: Red Wing, MN to St. Paul, MN, 50 miles
For breakfast, I plan to try out a local bakery that I passed yesterday, but then Jo tells me she’s made an extra bowl of porridge with raisins and sunflower seeds. I am grateful for the food she and Paul have shared with me but feel bad that I don’t have anything to contribute. I often feel this way at Warmshowers. People are so kind and generous, and I never have anything to give in return aside from a thank you. I always offer to wash the dishes, but it never feels like enough. (Many thanks to Jo, Paul, and Zach for everything! I will try to figure out a way to pay it forward.)
I consult with Zach about my route into St. Paul and decide to do the first leg on the Cannon Valley Trail. It is always good to be on a bike trail away from traffic, and with the overcast skies and mild temperatures, the morning passes by agreeably.
The rest of the route into St. Paul is comprised of frontage roads and bike paths, and I make good time. Tonight, I am staying with Tony and Katie, friends of friends, but Tony doesn’t get off work until 5:30, so I have some time to kill. I celebrate arriving in the Twin Cities (halfway across the country!) with lunch at Rooster’s, a great little dive that Google tells me has the best barbecue sandwich in St. Paul. It sure is tasty, and the fries are pretty great too.
It’s a short ride from Rooster’s to Tony’s house, and I find St. Paul to be both pretty and very bike-friendly. At Tony’s I get settled in, shower, and do a load of laundry. Outside, the overcast skies open up and pour rain and once again, I find myself happy to be inside rather than riding in the rain. I have three rest days ahead of me, and I am looking forward to good coffee, good food, sitting on my butt, catching up on some television, more sitting, more coffee, and Anna and Justin’s wedding on Saturday.
Day 44: St. Paul rest day
I grab breakfast at a neighborhood cafe aptly called The Neighborhood Cafe where I order banana pancakes and coffee.
After breakfast, I ride across the river to Minneapolis to a bike shop. I plan to get a full tune-up but when I arrive at the shop, the mechanic tells me that they’re booked through July 1st. I tell him I’m on a cross-country tour and he says he’ll take a quick look to see if the bike even needs a tune-up. After assessing the bike, he says all I need is some new brake pads and that he can install them right away. He also tightens my front rack and saddle, trims down my fenders, gives me a free sticker, and waives the labor fee. The whole thing costs $33 and takes less than an hour and a half, which is much cheaper and faster than I’d expected. If you’re in need of a bike shop in the Twin Cities area, definitely check out the Hub Bike Co-Op. They’re wonderful.
Always eager for a good coffee, I ride to another bike/coffee shop about a mile and a half away: Angry Catfish. This place is definitely more hipster than the last. I order a coffee and sit for awhile, debating what to do with my afternoon. Their selection of cycling caps is too good to pass up, so I purchase one and then head back to Tony’s where I veg out on the couch, eating cookies and watching Game of Thrones.