The next section of the journal is taped and transcribed but as both tape and transcript are inaccessible in storage I’ll give you both a brief outline of that day from memory, and from excerpts of the journal that was handwritten, a more detailed account of the following day.
Iowa was the place that always caused the most reaction from anybody I met along the way who asked me my route ahead.
They would listen to me reel off a list of States, nodding along until I was finished when they would say,
-Why are you going to Iowa?
Back when I was resting in Kansas City having fallen behind on my overall schedule, somebody told me they had figured out a way that I could save 2 days.
They didn’t understand that my schedule really didn’t mean a whole lot other than give me an idea of the feasibility of the whole trip, and as such it was very flexible.
Nonetheless I was intrigued by this notion of saving 2 days so I asked how it could be done. With no sense of irony or humour, I was told I could skip Iowa and informed of the route to achieve this.
Rather than point out that my original plan of Boston to San Diego is hardly the shortest route across the US even if going direct, let alone take my route of down and up and down the US while crossing it, I decided to point out the obvious:
“Or I could save 4 months by skipping the entire trip”
It seemed lost on some people that I wanted to go to Iowa. And while I didn’t actually know why I wanted to go there, the more it was questioned the more I knew I wanted to go.
In Maryville when I started it was raining.
On the outskirts of town I looked at the big blocks that are buildings by the big gash that was the highway bypassing the town, and thought how cold some of America is. This always hit me more in smaller towns than in cities, as if cities were somehow more organic expressions of concrete.
West and north I twisted for a distance of 25 miles until I came to a tiny town called Elmo. 10 miles further northwest and I reached the border with Iowa in another tiny town, this one called Blanchard.
Americans don’t call them borders. They are County Lines and State Lines and that makes sense since they are for the most part just lines on a map. When I first started cycling long distance, back when I was a teenager, I developed a habit of lifting my feet of the peddals and freewheeling across borders. If I was sure nobody was around I would add the necessary sound effect of “wheeeee!”
This was a psychological thing to celebrate my progress on a map. And I did it entering official town boundaries where indicated by “Welcome To…” signs, as well as cycling over the more important boundaries like those of counties and states.
Because I crossed the Iowa State Line in a town I whispered “wheeeee” and was immediately all excited to see what it was that so many people were against me seeing.
And it was fantastic. Huge swathes of corn on giant terraces. And curves. And to make things more exciting the road stopped going due north. In this part of the world where everything is gridded to perfection I was on a road that bent one way and then another. Proper bends, not those kinks you get every so often on the roads going south to north to keep the roads parallel while allowing for the fact that the world is round.
And there wasn’t a soul anywhere. What a fantastic corner of the world.
This is Page County. I remembered reading of Jackson Pollock’s family living in this southwest corner of Iowa, 2 counties over to the east. 5 miles north and I’m in a town called Coin, American town names still not disappointing, and 8 miles west completes a short day of 50 odd miles as I set down for the night in the romantically named town of Shenandoah.
[An account of the next day constitutes the rest of this entry and it’s below the fold]
And now after adopting the Chiefs from KC in pro-football, I adopt the Nebraska Huskers in college football. Easy with both teams winning but they’re just places I’m cycling through. Here at the Half, Nebraska are leading Colorado State 24 to 6.
Yesterday was my fourth bad start on the trot. Woke up very late. Whilst taping the journal, house-keeping came wanting to do my room. Yes, running late again. After packing everything up on the bike it was time to pump up the slow punctured rear tyre. There was almost enough air in it when the pump broke. It was at least 4 years maybe 6 or more years old. If it had to break at least I was in a town.
Whilst leaving the motel - The Tall Corn - I indulged in some querying of routes out of town with some people even though I pretty much knew where I was going. That’s what I do when I want people to talk to me. I was urged to go on the Wabash Trace. They’d seen all kinds of bikes there including a two-seater with a trailer. I would wait and see what its surface looked like before deciding if it was indeed suitable for a road bike. Now however I needed a pump.
Went back downtown to the sporting goods shop I’d seen the previous evening. They supplied every sport but cycling. Followed his directions to the only cycle shop in town. It’s a shed just outside town and I went over budget again as I spent almost twenty five dollars on the last pump in town.
Here I got a flyer on the Trace and they were all familiar with it. They rang the town ahead to see if there would be somewhere open for me to eat. There was. The Emerald Isle in Imogene was expecting me. I better go so, I said with the clock turned 11.
Somehow I missed the Trace by yards and ended up on some unpaved roads. I didn’t mind because I knew I’d pick it up again a few miles North and in the meantime I was going past some nice farms.
The Wabash Trace is an old railroad converted into a Nature Trail. Its surface is hard-packed finely ground Limestone and it’s fine for a road bike. Its width varied from 3 foot to 6 though mostly it was almost 5 foot. This was never an issue as nobody else was using it.
Because it follows the old railroad it completely minimises the hills, which was a very welcome relief for my legs. The woman in “Junks”, the bike shop, told me that the hills nearer Omaha were unique in the world except for one other range which was in China. A friend in KC had already told me of this. Also the Trace, being a railroad went diagonally to the roads which makes it a major shortcut. It’s full extent is actually from Council Bluffs, across the Missouri from Omaha, in Iowa, to Blanchard on the Southern state line with Missouri. I was aware of this and had I not forgotten I could’ve used it from Blanchard to Shenandoah the previous evening.
There was a 5 to 10 mile stretch with thousands upon thousands of grasshoppers lining both edges of the Trace. These were a rich green with yellow, almost a sickly colour. As I cycled by they would all take flight, leaping into my wheels, onto my legs, my arms, my face. They would cling to the hairs on my legs, my socks, my bags. I was brushing them off and trying to keep them away from my face so I could see. It was not a nice sensation having that many grasshoppers clinging to my legs. I was thinking about putting on the long cycling pants I’d borrowed back in KC to spare me that horrible feeling.
About a mile South of Imogene there was a bench. On it was the inscription : ‘Patrick “Patsy” and somebody O’ Connor - from Ireland to Imogene’. That was the journey I’d made too so I photographed it.
Back in Shenandoah I was told that Imogene was an Irish town. My directions were to turn right off the Trace, then right on Main Street, and then the Emerald Isle was across the street. On paper those directions are absolutely accurate but there’s only 4 buildings on the main street. I say 4 ’cause I can only remember 3. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt that it was a slightly bigger town. In reality look right from the Trace and there’s the Emerald Isle, so many yards down from a bar with a shamrock on it.
As I turned off the Trace 2 cyclists were visible coming towards me. They came into the bar just after me. When the barmaid told me of some pasta special I was happy not to look at the menu. Several glasses of home-made lemonade were good for the thirst without hurting my still sore throat. The 2 cyclists were both from Nebraska and were riding down the Trace from Silver City, Iowa, where they’d parked their car. One of them was from a farming background and told me it was fine to run over the grasshoppers. They told me of the bridges over the Missouri and I remained concerned. They left me most of their French Fries and some Onion Rings. As they were heading South on the Trace I wouldn’t see them again.
Back into the grasshoppers I rolled into the strong cold wind. The Trace was virtually completely lined with trees and growth. This can protect you from the wind sometimes, and other times traps the wind in a tunnel which you fight through waiting for a gap so the wind can dissipate.
This was the first trail of any kind I’d been on in the entire trip. Most of them are so short they’re of little use to a long distance tourer, but I did over 50 miles on this one. Despite the trees and its birds, and all the bushes and their colours, and the grasses, I kept feeling I was missing out on Iowa.
Every time I crossed a road there was a view, and sometimes there’s be no trees on one side but mostly you had to try and peek through the trees when you weren’t brushing off the grasshoppers. Some sections had hundreds of crickets I tried to avoid. Occasionally I’d disturb a dove in the grass and once a rabbit jumped out and hopped away frightened. At one point I came across a snake. The longest one I’d seen. 4 foot and fat with it. I checked its tail to see that it wasn’t a Prairie Rattler even though they don’t have them up here. Then using my bike as a shield I got closer for a photo. Just before pressing it very quickly slithered into the grass and out of sight.
At times you might see the back of a farm, or pass through a ghost town that the train once did, but roads did even more of this. When you could see the land it was typically corn for 5 to 10 miles in both directions on gently sloping hills, sometimes terraced. It did occur to me that I couldn’t complain of the view since it’s the same one I’d've seen from the original train and I profess to love trains, but I was on a bicycle not a train.
It seemed a very high price to pay to avoid motor vehicles, missing out on Iowa. As an extra route I’d give such trails my approval but I’d be very wary of too much enthusiasm for them. They should not replace roads. Cyclists who want to tour should see the land from the road that people have built the land around.
Came off the Trace at Malvern for drinks and to stock up on some chocolate and bananas. Another cyclist going North came off for drinks at Malvern too. Before restarting I spoke with him. I’d be dishonest to not describe him as a bit goofy. He rode the Trace often - this was as far South as he’d ever gone on it and he never rode on roads. His car was parked at the start/end of the Trace at Council Bluffs. 5 miles after restarting he caught up with me. We rode together then the rest of the way which was verging on for 20 miles. I say together but the Trace was mostly too narrow for two bikes to ride beside each other comfortably, and also there were many times when he was a good hundred metres in front of me. Over the last 10 miles I was stronger though and he followed me. We didn’t do much talking and it was little different to cycling alone. I pointed at a very common crop at one point and asked him what it was. He had no idea.
At Silver City I came off again to use my pump (new) for the first time as I could feel the rear wheel hitting the wooden bridges, and I also saw a mural I wanted a record of. As we neared the end of the Trace there was a lot of benches sponsored by local businesses and bridges were also adopted. A jogger and maybe 4 cyclists coming the opposite direction. I wondered if this was how they commuted to and from work. The longest bridge utilised the original steel rail bridge and from it I could see what can only be described as a train wreck, on the banks of the river below. Looked like it’d been there a long time. A whole train.
And then abruptly with no fanfare the Trace ended. I expect my overall cycle to end like that so it was good training. We said good-bye, I ate my bananas and some chocolate, and headed North for half a mile onto 92. Then 5 miles along this frustrating road South of Council Bluffs to the river. It had a gravel shoulder I used reluctantly, and when no traffic was coming I sat out there on the road.
And then the bridge. A mile long, no shoulder, I was scared. Some cars had their lights on. I said a quick prayer, reached my hands back to my bags where my purse containing the miraculous medals I was given was, and went forward. It was hairy and frightening but little traffic to be honest and I lived.
Chose F Street as an alternative to the main roads west and it was fine, even in dusk. It was suburbia really. Then it ran out on 60th Street. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Left or right looked the same but I managed to chose the way that people beeped at me and went dangerously close so, so fast. Grover didn’t look too busy but it was almost dark now. Rural towns and suburbia are fine in the dark but busy highways are suicide. Approaching 72nd after only 64 miles I chose life again.
Pulled into the Amoco garage and rang my Omaha contacts. They seemed happy to come collect me and I had the bags off the bike ready. Like with my hosts all those weeks ago in Connecticut, they made me instantly welcome. From handshakes, to beer, to listening to me ranting as I do when I dismount, to eating dinner before changing and showering. All very welcoming.
Chicken and garlic potatoes (scrummy yummy - I had several portions) and delicious carrots before making the effort to sink into an enormous bath. With the late arrival, the weather having me seriously under the weather, and comfortable I was in their company, I decided I must stay in Omaha another day. Nebraska, my 20th state.
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