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Bicycle ride across Iowa's northwest corner

  • Submitted by: Chuck Anderson
  • Submission Date: 14th Feb 2005

The RAIN Corner (Ride Across Iowa's Northwest Corner) Century

I woke up in my motel room in Sioux City Iowa on the day after Labor Day. I'd been on the road, bicycling, for nine days. The individual days of the week and their calendar dates were lost on me. Other than having trouble finding dinner the night before it had just been another day of pedaling from one point to another. Riding across the central plains of the US is not so much a journey to be taken by and explored as it is a matter of getting somewhere. A ride of destination rather than exploration.

This day's ride contained, in capsule form, many of the elements that can be encountered on an extended bicycle journey. There was rain, sunshine, winds pushing me, and winds stifling me. I was treated by various people as anything from a courageous traveler to an object of mockery. I rode on flat ground and rolling hills, within the heavy bustling traffic of a big city and in open countryside.

Not being much of a morning person I arose slowly, packed my belongings, fastened them to the bike -- an act that I had converted to ritual -- picked up a state map at the Chamber of Commerce, and was on the road by ten in the morning. I rubbed shoulders with the city traffic, most of it commercial trucks, as I traveled northwest on highway US 75 bound for Le Mars, Iowa.

My final destination(*) was either Sibley, Iowa, or if I pushed harder, my preference, Worthington MN. Sibley was 78 miles away and Worthington over 90. After leaving Sioux City at ten, Worthington was going to require something extra. That morning mother nature, for her own reasons, provided the extra push I needed -- a tailwind.

[ (*) a rather redundant phrase, as George Carlin mentions in his latest routine -- 'If you're not where you're going, you're not there yet.']

The day was off to a fine start. There was a safe, adequate shoulder, except for the small construction zones, and best of all, the blessing of a tailwind that buffeted me along for an average of 17 miles an hour. I hadn't had any real breakfast. Some orange juice, milk, and a banana that I'd bought the night before propelled me to a small convenience store where, unable to find bananas or other fruit, my fuel of choice, I treated my sweet tooth to a candy bar.

Twenty-six miles, the distance to Le Mars, seemed like a good distance to ride before getting some real food for lunch. I wanted to save money, so I was looking for a grocery store with fresh fruit and some milk. I had bread and peanut butter with me. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a banana and a carton of milk makes a fine lunch.

A long, slowly climbing curve led me into the town of Le Mars. I was looking down side streets for a grocery store. I couldn't see one. I even took a diversion, but ended up in a grocery-free industrial zone. As happened many times on this trip, I was unable to spot anything convenient, so I kept going, figuring that the next town would have what I was looking for.

At the north end of Le Mars, I came across the intersection with Iowa State Highway 60, the road I would be on for the rest of the day. The next town was Seney, four miles away. There was nothing there but a couple of big silos. Alton was twelve miles further.

The sky was becoming unsettled. In the morning there had been high cirrus clouds coming from the west, by this time, noon, there were large, low cumulus clouds all around. The temperature was about 60 degrees. The tint of my sunglasses made the sky appear dark enough to give the depressing illusion that rain was imminent, so I took them off.

The road was flat enough that I was able to relieve myself by waiting until I could see no traffic ahead or behind. During the first week of my trip I had learned to be sure to drink enough water. I drank a large water bottle (~1 1/2 pints) every hour to hour and a half. When you drink enough water you have to relieve yourself every couple of hours as well. On flat open country roads I didn't even need to find a bush.

There was no shoulder on this stretch of road and it appeared to be a popular truck route. The truck drivers in Iowa, as in Nebraska, were all patient about passing me carefully. If no one was coming the other way, they would signal left and then steer into the left lane to pass me. If another vehicle was coming the opposite way they would slow down and wait until it was clear before passing me. What a difference from the logging trucks on the west coast.

At one point, looking ahead, I saw a large semi-trailer truck approaching me. As always, I looked in my Mirrycle (tm) to see if there would be a conflict from behind. There was. Another large semi was coming up behind me and all three of us were going to pass at the same spot. These guys had been so courteous to me all day that, as I saw and heard the rearward truck downshift, I pulled off the road and into the grass and gravel so that all three of us could pass with no more delay.

A couple of miles later, the shoulder became too soft for me to safely execute this maneuver at high speed. No matter, though, since no trucks forced me to. They were unexpectedly, and pleasingly, courteous all day.

As I approached Alton the sky began to leak and I was struck by a few rain drops. As it became a very light drizzle I could see the town of Alton about a mile ahead, up a series of ascending rollers. Since I hadn't made myself rain ready, I raced the weather to Alton. I'd been ascending shallow rolling hills since turning on to 75, and the steepest of them, thus far, were right here. Huff and puff. Please God, let me make it this one more mile without a downpour.

At the south end of Alton there was a cafe and a short, steep hill, beyond which lay the rest of the town. I'd beaten the rain. It was barely drizzling, so I eased up the hill and down into town. Nothing there for me, so I reversed my course and headed back to the cafe. There was a small patio where I parked and made ready for the rain. I put pannier covers on and put my camping gear into garbage bags. The camping gear was fastened with bungee cords and I slipped my rain jacket under one of them. My coat is made of rubber coated nylon, the kind that traps a lot of heat, so I hate wearing it until necessary.

It was 1:00 and I had traveled 42 miles. My average rolling speed had been 16.7 miles per hour. It looked like Worthington, my 90-some mile goal, was within easy reach. I was still hoping to save money by fixing my own lunch, but I also needed to eat. I went into the cafe and asked if there was a store with fresh produce in Alton. The answer was 'no, but there's one in Hospers (eight miles ahead).' I ordered some fries and a cherry coke.

As was usual, I was approached by people asking me where I was going and where I'd started. They were astounded by what I was doing and gave me praise for my personal courage and strength. I met a truck driver there and thanked him for the general courteousness I'd encountered. In fact, I told him that I'd appreciate it if the trucks passed a little closer. There isn't much of a draft to pick up on when trucks pass in the left lane. I wouldn't mind them passing a bit closer.

'Not when it starts raining, you won't,' he said. Prophesy.

I encountered another person worth talking about in this cafe. The younger, middle-aged woman working behind the counter. She provided the perfect example of a non-cyclist trying to give route advice. She hoped to provide me with an easier route to the next town, Hospers.

On my state map, the official Iowa Transportation Map, Hospers was eight miles north-northeast of Alton. The highway went northeast for about five miles and then curved north for three more miles. Almost a perfect diagonal. She began drawing a map for me that started by going a mile or two east, then left at a stop sign, past some 'industry,' as she put it, where her husband worked, and then along a county road to Hospers. She would have me take this detour because it seemed faster in a car and I would avoid the viaduct at the north end of town.

I've been misled by advice like this before, so I kindly accepted it, but still rode straight down highway 75 to Hospers. There was no way that this other route could actually be a short cut. She must have been worried about my being on the highway with all those trucks and climbing over that huge viaduct.

As a rule: beware of non-cyclist's advice. Try to get directions from more than one source.

The fries and coke satiated my energy needs and I was raring to get back into that buffeting tailwind. After crossing over the highway viaduct north of Alton, I noticed the road was wet, but it was not raining. My food stop in Alton had serendipitously saved me from a small downpour. As I looked north, against distant dark clouds, I saw strokes of lightning too far away to be heard. I was going that way, but it was no problem. I was rain ready.

Approaching Hospers, the rain began falling and the wind started turning around. I noticed my shoes were beginning to get wet, so I put on my rain jacket and slipped gallon size zip-loc (tm) bags over my shoes. The rain was short lived, but the wind was beginning to become a real bother.

I stopped in Hospers and picked up some bananas, ate one, and stashed the other. Noticing that I was in short sleeves and carrying my rain jacket, the grandmother at the grocery shop warned me that this was prime weather for catching a cold. (I kept my mouth shut, as I know that colds don't come from bad weather, rather from physiological depression, which I was definitely not suffering from.)

Leaving Hospers, the sun came out. It seemed I was following a whole in the clouds and would have fair weather with me if I kept following the correct spiritual pace. I guess I missed it. The wind began blasting at me. It was difficult to keep my pace over nine or ten miles an hour.

I wished that the wind would turn around. I would accept, and even prayed for, a downpour to accompany it. Just get that wind out of my face. A headwind can ruin anything. Be ye in paradise, 'twould seem like hell, were there a headwind.

I crept sixteen more miles to Sheldon, a big town. Big enough to have stop lights and big ruts in the road. And all the while a constant stream of cars passing by. Damn wind!

I finally left Sheldon. I'd been noticing that since I turned onto state highway 75, 16 miles south of Alton, I'd been on ascending rollers -- rolling hills -- anywhere from 30 to 100 feet each. You see the crest in the distance, climb to the top, and it just levels off. There's no downhill on the other side to coast on. This was verified by my altimeter (Avocet 50). I was climbing. That and the oppressive headwind were breaking my spirit. Maybe I *would* get a cold.

[I noticed later, on my map, that the highest point in Iowa is three to four miles north of Sibley -- 1,670'.]

With the northerly headwind blasting in my ears I looked down at my speedometer. 'Shit, I'm only going 8.5 miles per hour. Focus! Put more meat in it. Chew the big one. Grind. How much further to the next town? Don't look. Wait longer. Damn, here comes another truck! Even more wind. 6.5 MPH. Chew on it. Get your speed back up (to 10 MPH). How much further. OK, look. Not even another mile. How come all the trucks are coming at me. I hate this wind! Acchhh! Here comes another truck.'

Ten miles later I was in Ashton. There was a neighborly little rest stop by the roadside. A picnic bench in the grass by a big tree. Beginning to feel the nutrition depletion bonk, I decided to lunch there. I loosened my bungee cords and dug bread, peanut butter, and a banana out of the day pack that was strapped on top of everything else.

Zzzzzzzzzztt. Slap! Get out the bread. Zzzzzzttt. Slap! Where's that darn knife? Zzzzzztt, zzzzzztt. Slap! Slap! I'd stirred up a bunch of mosquitoes from the tall grass I was standing in. I piled my lunch on top of my packs and started walking across to a nearby gas station. That's when my camping gear and daypack flopped off the back of the bike and the loose bungee cords grabbed for anything -- the spokes, the hub. I dropped my lunch, refastened the camping gear and scooted over to the nearby gas station. I went back, picked up my lunch, and tried to eat it outside the gas station. Flies. Farm country and flies. Too many to tolerate, so I ducked inside the gas station and asked if I could 'picnic' in there. Thanks.
After a quick lunch, constantly swinging at files, I hit the road again. The weather had been shifting around all day. And now, great luck. I could hardly believe it. The wind was actually at my back. Ya hoo! It was as though my ignorant, impatient determination had made me put off stopping to eat lunch. Now the gods were rewarding me for stopping and taking the time to eat.

I flew into Sibley. My average speed had dropped from nearly 17 MPH to 14 MPH. On the way to Sibley, in just seven miles, I got it back up over 15. About a mile outside of Sibley, I became aware of a car behind me and then something hitting my back. I looked up and saw scrawny 'Beavis and Butthead-like' arms hanging out of the window of a small, passing, silver sedan. And I, without thinking, gave this motley teenage crew the angry, profanity-spewing show that they had been hoping to invoke. The little shits. I wanted to tear one of those arms off.

Agghh. I wish I hadn't reacted at all. There was no pain and no mark. Who knows what they hit me with.

[This was the only incident of this nature on my entire trip -- the only bad feelings shown towards me by anyone.]

Now, my earlier prayer was answered in it's entirety. Just as I was entering Sibley, the sky opened up and the rain began to pour down. I dashed under a gas station roof and put on my rain jacket and zip-locs. I'd asked for it, but it was alright. I was right. Rain is no problem. Headwinds are. If it takes rain to stop a headwind, bring it on.

Oh yes. As the truck driver in Alton had said, the spray from passing trucks was not desirous. It was exhilarating ... but also blinding. I learned to wear my sunglasses on my forehead so that I could quickly drop them down over my eyes when a truck passed.

The rain only lasted a few miles and the winds died down, too. As I crossed the border into Minnesota I removed my rain jacket and shoe bags, which by the way, were holding out fine. Happiness came over me as it did at all major benchmarks on my trip. I even got a little delusional. I thought the Deer License sign outside of a gas station rest stop said Beer License. Did I really need one of those in Minnesota?

Worthington was an easy ten miles after the border. I was in high spirits. When I passed 90 miles I said to myself, 'I'm in century land.' I'd easily be doing over 95 miles and, being fully loaded, I felt it qualified as a true century. The RAIN corner century. How appropriate.

Actually, I'd thought of the acronym as I was trying to kill time, riding between Alton (the cafe at 42 miles) and the Minnesota border. The concept came pretty easily. It had been a rather full day as far as riding conditions go. And I'd sheared off the northwest corner of Iowa in a single, one-hundred mile day.

I stopped at a gas station in Worthington and got advice from a pair of high school-aged, midwest farmer's daughters. 'Why did you come to Worthington? There's nothing here.' (It's actually the Nobles County seat, with a population of 10,000 -- bigger than most towns I'd seen since I left Colorado.) They told me where the motels were and then, for some odd reason, wanted to see what a Colorado driver's license looked like. I obliged and then moved on.

Just as I had done the night before, I found a local, independently owned motel (the best kind). And, coincidentally, it was run by a middle eastern fellow that I unintentionally ended up haggling over price with. After looking at the room and telling him that I wanted to look at a couple of others motels before deciding, the bartering began. He said that if I had a car he would offer me a lower price.

'..... What?'

'You mean, if I wasn't on a bicycle, if I drove a car, you'd offer me a better deal?' I was pissed, but biting my tongue, and hoping for a reasonable explanation. Maybe I hadn't heard him right.

'That's right,' he said. Then he explained. If I was in a car and I went to look at the other room I'd come back, but since I was on a bicycle, I might not be inclined to ride all the way back. Hence, why bother to offer a price reduction. I guess I understood. It was not my kind of logic, but it was obviously not ill intent on his part. Just his style of business. He turned out be a very nice person. I liked him.

'I'm still going to go look though.'

'I know where you will look and it is not better. You will see. This is a finer room.'

We both knew where I'd be looking. In fact, I'd already been there and I did like his room better, but it cost $2 more ($24). Anyway, my real mission was to find a motel that was convenient to beer and groceries. He thought all beer in Minnesota was the same, but I told him I must find out for myself. As I began to ride away he followed with, '$22, you can have room for $22.'

'Ok, I'll probably be back shortly.'

Two kind ladies at the Phillips gas station informed me that convenience store beer was 3.2 beer. The only real beer was at the liquor store at this end of town, another mile back into the headwind and two miles from the previous motel. They also told me about a lounge nearby with a good menu that was developed by a friend of theirs who now lives in Colorado. Coincidence seems, sometimes, to be a divine message. Like a road sign for the spiritually aware. Everything was in place.

I came back, got the room, got some beer, and had fettucini alfredo with sauteed chicken breast pieces at the lounge the ladies had suggested (I can't remember the name). The food was excellent, the company, well, not boring. One college age kid at the bar was from Mankato, my destination for the following day. He had lots of advice and information ... for whatever it was worth. Total distance from the Imperial Motel in Sioux City IA to the Shady Lane Motel in Worthington MN (10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.) - 95.4 miles. Total climb - 1050'
Ave. speed (rolling) - 15.1 MPH
95 miles in 8 hours -- a good pace for me. Total Miles in 10 days - 734


Chuck Anderson uucp : uunet!nyx!canderso
Boulder, CO internet:


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