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In September, 2002, Greene and I set out again, across the middle of America this time, with my sister Susan and her two wheels as our traveling companions.

photo: Judy Schaper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denver to Montreal

september 11 - october 9, 2002

 

It was the summer of 2002, and I was planning an autumn trip to the west coast: Peter and I would visit friends in Seattle, then he would fly back to New York and I would head to Southern California to see my parents. From California I’d go on to Denver to climb a 14,000-foot mountain named Quandary with my sister Susie before flying back to New York on September 12th. I made the plans, bought the tickets … and then found myself looking at a map of the United States, thinking, why fly?

Greene had been in storage in Seattle for four years. When I got there, I took her to R&E Cycles for a serious overhaul, then put her in a box and sent her to Denver. When I got to Colorado, I began needling Susie to go for a bike ride with me. We hiked Quandary on a Saturday. Monday she took her bike to REI for a check-up. Tuesday she bought a rack and panniers.

Wednesday morning, September 11th, we set out. Up through northeastern Colorado, across the sandhills of Nebraska, and into the Iowa cornfields. We were sore. We were sunburned. We had three flat tires in the first twenty-four hours. We were laughing all the time, drinking $2 Budweisers, playing poker in our tent while a thunderstorm exploded around us, having an absolute blast.

Looking at the map of the U.S., Ohio and Pennsylvania hadn’t particularly tempted me; nor had the idea of pedaling into New York City. Wisconsin and Quebec sounded better. I told Peter to buy a ticket to Montreal and I'd meet him there on October 9th, the day before my 37th birthday. We'd have a romantic bed & breakfast reunion and then take the train back to New York together. With this deadline in mind (and since I had never bothered to sit down and calculate how far it actually was from Denver to Montreal) Susie and I were in a bit of a hurry, but still we had time to discover a little bit of that vast part of the world that is the middle of America.

We found dying shells of towns: wild west, depressionesque almost-ghost towns where most of Main Street was boarded up, leaving only a post office, a library (always a library!), and maybe a café, a grocery store, or a gas station. We discovered how much of America still drives on dirt roads. We learned that horses and cattle, indifferent to eighteen-wheel big rigs, are either fascinated or terrified by bicycles: the cattle would stampede away and the horses would chase us. Nebraska often reminded me of Mongolia – all that wide-open space – except that in America, all that wide-open space belongs to someone. It’s all behind a fence.

For most of a journey it's the map and the rising and setting sun that guide your days. But sometimes you have to listen to your stomach. Our guidebook mentioned a place called Junie Mae's Roadhouse Barbeque on the shores of Lake McConaughy. The description was entitled "pork out" and included words like grill, ribs, potato salad, "bake their own," buns, sausage, "make their own," smoke, and brisket. We didn't have to read that twice. So what if only rode forty miles that day.... We pedaled into the sandy lakeside campground right across the street from the restaurant, set up our tent, and settled down at a table at Junie Mae's.

And then sometimes, you just have to go wherever the wind blows you. The prevailing wind across North America blows west to east. Everyone says so. Except in September of 2002, when it blew east to west. I swear. One day in Iowa we had to pedal hard to maintain a speed of 6mph --- downhill! On the morning of Tuesday, September 17th, we left the Stapleton, Nebraska city park & campground heading for a town called Broken Bow. The route began with a four-mile jog straight south. The wind flew at our faces. I sighed, put my head down, and started pedaling. After a few minutes I heard Susie yelling, "What was our other option?" Our other option was the town of Brewster, population 22 ("well, maybe 23 or 24, Delten's had a couple of kids"). It was an eighty mile ride instead of fifty-seven, and the day before we had set off shortly after dawn and ridden until dark to cover ninety miles. On the other hand, the road to Brewster began with a thirty-six mile stretch straight north. With the wind at our backs. We turned around, and flew! And spent that night at Uncle Buck's Lodge, a place so fabulously friendly and Nebraskan that the next morning we abandoned our bicycles for the day, in favor of a pair of quarterhorses and a plateful of Rocky Mountain Oysters.

We discovered that Nebraska is not entirely flat (they named them the sandhills for a reason). We discovered that western Nebraska is not the Midwest; it’s the West. Cowboy hats, not baseball caps. Ranchers, not farmers. Massive gray cattle trucks, not the green-and-yellow of the John Deere tractors that populate the Iowa landscape. Iowa is definitely the Midwest: neat rows of soybeans rising to the horizon; corn rustling and glowing in the evening sun; picture-perfect red farmhouses.

Every town was marked by a water tower and a grain elevator, but most of them lacked the little run-down motel I had imagined to be ubiquitous. Instead of motels or campgrounds, however, we found the hospitality of the people: “No, there’s no motel," they said in Webb, "but we have a guest room.” “No," they said in Britt, "there’s no campground, but you’re welcome to set up your tent in our yard.”

Susie abandoned me in Mason City, Iowa (she hadn't originally planned on riding even that far). But before she caught a Greyhound back to Denver we holed up for a day at the Holiday Inn, both slammed with nasty colds. We sat in the whirlpool, did laundry, ordered room service, and spent a windy, rainy afternoon exploring Mason City, which turns out to be home not only to Meredith Willson of “Music Man” fame and to many Frank Lloyd Wright / Prairie School homes, but also to the Charles MacNider Art Museum, whose collection includes the original marionettes from the Sound of Music’s “Lonely Goatherd” number!

Greene and Bob (the trailer I was pulling instead of carrying panniers) and I then headed up through the southeastern tip of Minnesota, across Wisconsin, towards Michigan. The leaves were beginning to change as I flew along the Root River Trail in Minnesota, the centerpiece of my first and only 100+ mile day, which began in Iowa and ended in Wisconsin. Northeastern Iowa is home to a large Amish population, but by the end of the day the black-on-yellow horse-and-buggy-crossing signs had given way to black-on-yellow snowmobile-crossing signs. Wisconsin was all about the changing leaves and the wonderful back-road cycling. And one more lovely evening in the home of a family ready to respond to “Which way to a hotel?” with “We have a spare room. Is grilled chicken all right for dinner?” 

Meanwhile, back in Denver, Susie had done some research for me and learned that Route 17, the road east across Ontario from Michigan, was cycling hell: a busy two-lane shoulder-less highway. October 9th was looming impossibly close anyway, so that information was all I needed to decide that once I'd crossed the International Bridge from Sault Ste.-Marie, Michigan into Sault Ste.-Marie, Ontario, I would catch a Greyhound the four or five hundred miles to Ottawa before pedaling the last 150 miles into Montreal.

No longer in a rush, I rode into the UP – Michigan’s Upper Peninsula - a little world unto itself where it’s just possible that when a lone cyclist has to stay put at the Nahma Inn for a day to wait out thunderstorms and “damaging” winds (the Weather Channel had become my new best friend) someone will say, “Well if you’re stuck here, you’re welcome to take my Explorer and go for a ride.” Which I did, driving out to the Peninsula Point Lighthouse to watch the sun break through the storm clouds over Lake Michigan.

It's funny how sometimes a trip is over before it's over. Nahma was the end of this trip. Oh, I rode several hundred more miles, and made it to the perfect room that Peter had reserved at the Petit Prince B&B in time to have the champagne chilled and waiting for him, but the days after the bus pulled into Ottawa were about getting there, instead of being there. And that, of course, is never what a good adventure is about. So the indubitable delights of Canada will have to wait for another trip. This trip was about America, about being surprised and unexpectedly charmed by a country I thought I knew.

 

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 © 2001 Erika Warmbrunn. All rights reserved. No part of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from the author.

 

by bicycle across Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan

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