For most of the working world in the US, the Memorial Day holiday marks the beginning of summer when kids will be out of school and parents can start making vacation plans. In this year of our extended travel across the US, Memorial Day was a different kind of marker for us. When we left Medford, Oregon, the day after the holiday, our travels across country from east to west officially ended as we turned now back towards destinations in the east.
We continued our leisurely pace of exploration and education, not attempting to make great distances on any given day of travel and avoiding interstates whenever possible. Tuesday we made it as far as Prineville, Oregon, which is northeast of Bend. We took some time on the way to stop at the Newberry Volcanic National Monument.
Words and pictures fail to describe all that we observed these past 5 days while visiting my sister, Sande, on her ranch in Torrington, Wyoming. The amount of work that is necessary to make a living on a ranch is overwhelming. We tried to come up with a list of categories for everything she is involved in that contributes to her daily workload. That list (I’m sure we forgot some) includes: haying, beef cattle, dairy cows, housekeeping, cooking, cheese making, poultry, business management, calving, branding, fencing, irrigation, vehicle and machinery upkeep, gardening and rattlesnake killing.
Raising two bottle calves, that have to be fed 3 times a day.
Straining the milk sold as fresh milk or made into cheese.Heading out with 3-wheeler to check hay fields.
Boone, faithful dog, rides everywhere with her and helps with herding the cattle.
Candy, the dairy cow, needs to be milked twice daily and then given feed and water.
Didn’t get a photo, but 2 horses and several cows and calves stay in the barnyard area and have to be fed twice a day, also. This doesn’t count driving the tractor out into the fields to bring hay to the main herd (80 cows with their calves). This task is necessary because the drought conditions have meant there is not enough grass for grazing.
Feed and water for Candy.
The hay had been cut and was drying in the fields until Wednesday morning when the men with the rake and baler showed up to begin baling the hay. Sande assisted by using her forklift to pick up the bales and organize them into piles of three. This made it less time consuming to get the bales off the field and put onto the storage stack near the farmyard. The man who had been hired for that task showed up with his tractor, loader and wagon later in the afternoon. He and Sande worked so efficiently that they were almost caught up with the raker and baler when the storms hit. It was amazing how fast the storm clouds built up. When the rain and hail began in earnest the haying had to be abandoned as everyone ran for shelter.
The hay crop was small because of the drought and some of what was cut will be ruined after everything has dried out and the haying resumes. But most of what was cut down this week was brought in and stacked before the rain and Sande was thankful for the hay that she did get. Hopefully, second and third cuttings later this summer will yield more.
Heading out to begin stacking the hay.
Are you wondering if Lee and I did anything useful while we were there? Well, the day before the haying started Sande said that we could help with the task of getting one of her young bulls moved from its pen in the farmyard out into the field where it could be with a group of her cows who were ready for breeding. We would get the bull corralled first and then she would load it into her horse trailer and drive it to the field.
Lee came prepared with his red shirt for the bull herding task.
Sande did most of the “herding” and we just yelled and waved our hands or closed gates after it went through.Giving the bull its tag before it gets loaded into the trailer.After the bull was unloaded in the field there was a water tank in an adjacent field that needed to be brought back to the farmyard. Using the now empty horse trailer, Lee helped Sande drain the tank and roll it into the trailer.
Our vacation is over and now it’s time to get ourselves in shape for the Des Moines Register Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). It’s true that there are still 37 days left before the ride starts but we do need some training rides that match the conditions on the real ride. Our travels and adventures over the past 6 months often included bike riding, but we were mostly on rails-to-trails bike paths and we didn’t do rides that were very long. Especially for me, I’m anxious to start using the road bike that I will have on RAGBRAI, instead of the hybrid bike that is the one I’ve been using on our travels. It’s important to get riding time on the bike that you plan to use for the week of RAGBRAI.
Before we left the West on Monday to make our way back here to the Midwest, we had a wonderful weekend with friends in Boulder, Colorado. They hosted us for the weekend at their cabin, which is on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The pictures and descriptions of our Rocky Mountain adventure are posted here.
There are a lot of miles of plains and prairie to cross on the trip from Boulder to Jefferson City, Missouri. Most of what we did this week was just grind out those miles on the interstate, not spending a lot of sightseeing time along the way like we usually do. Maybe we have gotten too spoiled by all of the beautiful country we have seen in the West and are blinded to what eastern Colorado and the state of Kansas have to offer.
We did spend one relaxing evening camping at Eisenhower State Park in Kansas. It was a nice campground on a reservoir about 30 miles south of Topeka. At the park visitor center we picked up a brochure on Kansas state parks and noticed that not too far away from where we were there is a state park, the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail State Park. We made plans to break camp early enough Wednesday morning to allow ourselves some bike riding time on the Prairie Spirit Trail.
The weather forecast for Wednesday called for afternoon winds from the south. The Prairie Spirit Trail has a northern terminus in the town of Ottawa, from where it passes through a number of small towns before ending to the south in the town of Iola. Given the wind conditions, it made sense to start riding south from Ottawa, pedal for awhile and then when we were ready to turn around to go back to our car, we would have a tail wind.
We got a good workout and enjoyed our day of riding on the trail. One of the most interesting incidents happened just before we reached the town of Richmond, which was our turnaround point. On the trail in front of us we saw a parked pickup truck with 2 men taking a lunch break from their task of trimming brush and trees along the trail. We struck up a conversation with one of the men, who was quite helpful in answering questions about the trail. Before continuing our journey we learned that we had been talking to the manager of the Prairie Spirit Trail. What a surprise that he should be out there trimming trees on the trail. Also, we were surprised by some of the history we learned from him. The first section of the trail was completed in 1996 and he was hired as trail manager the year before that. It was the first rail trail in Kansas and those who were advocating for the project met with a lot of resistance. 97% of the land in Kansas is privately owned and its citizens were not ready to accept the idea of a public trail passing through their lands, with people potentially trespassing and/or causing property damage. As it turned out, the trail has been quite a success and is featured in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame.
Wednesday evening we arrived at Jefferson City, Missouri, where we are spending 4 days at a motel. We will be doing some day bike trips on the Katy trail. It will then be time to drive to Iowa City where I will be able to get the road bike at my son’s house that we left there at the end of last year’s RAGBRAI. Then RAGBRAI training will begin in earnest. And, of course, the best reason for arriving in Iowa City will be to see the grandkids again!
Today is the first day of summer and there’s no doubt that it is summer here in Iowa. Since we arrived Monday the temperatures have remained in the 90’s with the humidity almost as high. Having a gusty wind blowing from the south has made it seem even hotter. There’s a possibility of some thundershowers tonight in advance of a cooler weather front. Except for the fact that we are camping out, it would be a relief to see some rain.
Our four days of bike riding last week on the Katy trail in Missouri were good preparation for the heat and headwinds here in Iowa. Being on a rails-to-trails bike path meant that we didn’t get to experience any hill climbs but, in a way, that can make the riding more difficult. It’s always a struggle when you have to stretch your legs and lungs to pedal up a steep hill, but then there’s the reward of zipping downhill. On the flat stretches of the Katy trail it can get quite tiring to just keep pushing and pushing at the same steady pace as you slowly pass the miles of the same cornfields, wheat fields and river bluffs that were visible the hours before and the days before.
Somewhere along the Katy Trail in Missouri
Bluffs along Katy Trail
Missouri River visible from Katy Trail
Remains of old clay-tile grain elevator, all that’s left of the town of Pearsons along the Katy Trail
The only tunnel on the Katy Trail, just outside Rocheport
Monday evening we arrived in Iowa City, where we are camping at Kent Park. I was happy to see family and excited to get back on my road bike that had been here in Iowa City since the end of last summer’s RAGBRAI. Tuesday morning the local Bicyclists of Iowa City bike club had a 30-mile ride scheduled, a perfect opportunity to take the bike out for a spin. Close to 20 riders showed up and it was good riding, as well as good socializing. We fought some strong headwinds but the ride leader had done a good job of planning so that the way back on the loop we had the winds behind us. We got to practice pedaling up a few Iowa hills, as well. And then there was the beauty of the Iowa countryside and the opportunity to wave at some Amish children peering over the fence of their yard watching us ride by. We also encountered an Amish buggy on one of the roadways.
RAGBRAI is several weeks away and we will continue our training rides here and our visits with family. Traveling is fun but it’s also nice to know that we can stay in one place for a bit and not have to drive miles and miles in the car.
Every week is like a RAGBRAI week since we have been here in Iowa. In previous years, I would have to spend 51 weeks a year waiting for that one special week of RAGBRAI. Camping, bike riding, fighting heat and headwinds, encountering friendly Iowans, seeing beautiful countryside, more bike riding–all of what I love about RAGBRAI has been part of our days here.
Training rides in Virginia would get tiresome after while because we would do the same routes and get the miles over as quickly as possible. Here we get to explore routes that are new to us. Some of the rides have been with the bike club and some were mapped out for us by Mike, who has ridden just about every route there is to ride around Iowa City. And then if we don’t feel like doing a bike ride there is also the fun of spending time with the grandkids. Life doesn’t get much better than this.
After nearly 4 weeks enjoying our time in the Iowa City area, today marks a transition point in our preparations for the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). We’ve made reservations for week-long accommodations at an extended stay hotel in Des Moines, Iowa. This puts us closer to the western part of the state, where RAGBRAI begins on July 22. Next week we will be able to explore biking opportunities in the Des Moines area, as well as giving ourselves some time to rest up for the big ride.
This summer’s extended drought in the Midwest is disastrous for farmers, but for us vacationers spending our days bike riding and our nights camping, it has meant not having to worry about getting cold and wet. I’m not one to ever admit that the weather is too hot for comfort, but there was one week that the heat was particularily oppressive.
July 7, the day that the temperature was a record-breaking 102 degrees, happened to be the day that the bike club had scheduled a 76-mile RAGBRAI training ride. The handful of us brave souls who showed up that morning didn’t know it was going to be THAT hot; otherwise, we might have had second thoughts. Thankfully, the route was mostly flat and there wasn’t much wind that day. If there would have been hills and/or headwinds I’m not sure I would have made it. As it was, the last hour or so when there was no shade or water stops anywhere, I came close to what felt like heat stroke. When it was over, though, a couple of hours in Mike’s air-conditioned house fixed me right up. As the saying goes about facing adversity, “it won’t kill you, it will just make you stronger.”
I certainly do feel stronger after all the bike riding we’ve done the last few weeks. Besides getting a foretaste of some of that Iowa summer heat, I’ve done a lot of rides that were hilly and that faced headwinds. Those conditions are something that you usually always encounter on RAGBRAI. I can also consider myself well trained for the camping part of RAGBRAI.
I lost count of how many bike rides we did, but I do remember that there were 4 different places that we camped. Each one of the campgrounds seemed to be better than the one before. After the stay at the county park, we moved to a state park at Lake Macbride. Lake Macbride is connected to Coralville Lake, which has many campgrounds and recreation areas. Both are reservoirs formed from dams on the Iowa River and are within biking distance of Iowa City.
After all of the camping that we have been doing, it seems very different now to be close to the big city of Des Moines and settled into our studio apartment for a whole week. We did some grocery shopping and had to relearn again what it’s like to have a refrigerator to fill instead of planning one day at a time and having to make do with what can fit into a small ice chest and wondering if it’s time to buy ice again. Fortunately, this extended stay hotel is in a quiet suburb and still has the feel of good old Iowa country living. I’m looking forward to discovering where the bike trails are.
Today’s bike ride was along the east side of Saylorville Lake on the Neal Smith Trail. When we left our apartment this morning it was not the trail that we had in mind. We were planning to ride the Chichaqua Valley Trail, a 20-mile scenic recreational trail between Bondurant and Baxter. We didn’t realize that the trail is currently closed for repairs due to flood damages from last summer. We tried unsuccessfully to find another bike trail in Bondurant that we thought we could see on a map. We followed some sidewalks for awhile but then realized that the line on the map was for a railroad, not a bike trail.
We knew there was a bike trail along Saylorville Lake so we reloaded the bikes on the car and headed northeast of Des Moines towards the lake. We didn’t know the name of the trail and missed one of the trailheads that crossed the road we were on. But then we saw a sign for the Visitors Center at Saylorville Lake, and, sure enough, they had maps of the trail. Since we had wasted half the day at that point, we didn’t have time or energy for the whole trail. We rode from the Visitors Center to the end of the trail and back, a total of about 25 miles.
As it turned out, we had picked the best section of the trail. There was a lot of shaded areas in that section, nice views of the lake, and many ups and downs and winding twists to keep things interesting. We learned from another biker at the end of the day, that the section we didn’t do from the Visitors Center to Des Moines, was all flat river bottomland through the suburbs and city.
Today we checked one more item off my Des Moines area bucket list. We drove up to Woodward to bike on the High Trestle Trail.
Since it would be an out-and-back ride, we couldn’t do the entire 26-mile length. We chose to start at the Woodward end because the High Trestle Bridge is just 2.6 miles down the trail from there.
The bridge is quite impressive and it’s a thrill to be so high up over the Des Moines River and surrounding valley. The remainder of the 10 miles that we rode into Slater were not that exciting. There was a nice city park where we ate lunch in Slater before turning around. But a rails-to-trails is flat and open to the sun beating down and not an ideal ride on a hot Iowa summer day.
Today we left Des Moines and drove 200 miles closer to Sioux Center, Iowa, where RAGBRAI starts the day after tomorrow. We are resting up in a motel near Sioux City, Iowa. Names of locations here are confusing. The map above shows Sioux City and to the north is Sioux Falls, South Dakota. But the start of RAGBRAI is Sioux Center, which is too small to show up on this map scale. Sioux Center is about 50 miles north of here above Le Mars. That means we are in a good position for getting into the RAGBRAI starting town early in the day tomorrow. The day before the ride is such a madhouse that the sooner we can roll into town the more traffic we can avoid.
All indications are that this year’s RAGBRAI will be hot and sunny, like the days and weeks we’ve spent here in Iowa, so far, getting ourselves ready. We didn’t let the heat stop us from doing lots of bike riding so now we should be acclimated for the week ahead.
We managed to find a bike trail to explore each of the days last week that we were in Des Moines. I was surprised at how many of the trails allowed us to ride in places with lots of shade trees.
While pedaling away the miles on a typical RAGBRAI day, one of the things that often brings a smile to your face and a humorous bit of encouragement is the handmade roadside signs local residents post along the route. These are “Burma Shave” type commercials for those of you old enough to remember driving a highway and seeing a series of the signs with a partial message on each one leading to a final punch line.
Anyway, today I saw one of these sign series that I wanted to share:
1st sign: “Helpful Hints for your ride across Iowa”
2nd sign (with an arrow pointing to a cornfield on the righthand side of the road): “This is corn”
3rd sign (with an arrow pointing to a soybean field on the lefthand side of the road): “These are beans”
Punchline sign: “That’s all you need to know”
Yup, that’s the basics of what you’re going to see…lots of corn and soybean fields. But it’s hard to describe why that can still be something so beautiful to behold. You would think after having pedaled these many Iowa highways over the years that I would be tired of seeing the same thing. But after finishing the first day of this year’s ride I can’t wait to get back on the bike to pedal some more tomorrow.
We had a lot of headwinds today but I was on the road early enough this morning that I was able to finish the day before the winds got too strong. That also helped with the heat factor. It’s starting off to be a very hot week, with temperatures up to 100 the next couple of days. The most important thing is to drink lots of water and I’m careful to do that and am looking forward to another great ride tomorrow.
With this record-breaking heat what better place to spend the night than a campground on the shores of Black Hawk Lake? This 957-acre lake that is Iowa's southernmost glacial lake was named after the Sac Indian Chief Black Hawk. The statue in the photo is a historic landmark that was erected in 1934.
Our host town here is the small resort commmunity of Lake View. It's surprising how many amenities even the smallest towns can provide. And then there's an added advantage that everything is close and it's easy to get around. Of course, as hot as it is, there wasn't much except showers, shade and cool drinks that I was interested in looking for.
I read in today's paper that the National Weather Service reported that the first three weeks in July were the second warmest on record in Des Moines, only being exceeded by July of 1936. Based on total precipitation so far this summer, the area is in its fifth-driest summer on record to date. This could be the driest spell since 1927, even surpassing the Dust Bowl years.
It wasn't until the last couple of hours of pedaling today that I began to feel the excessive heat. That's a major selling point for getting up before daylight and getting started at first light. Overall, today's ride was one of the easiest I can remember. There was hardly any wind, the hills were gradual and provided nice breezes on the way down, and the pass-through towns were spaced out just about right for when I needed a break.
These triple digit temperatures are supposed to be around for two more days, but I'm more than ready to get out there and tackle another RAGBRAI day tomorrow.
About halfway through the morning, two bicyclists pedaled by and I overheard one of them say to the other: “Well, you know an east wind brings rain and rain brings cooler temperatures.” I knew that the comment was meant as encouragement because I had looked at the days route map and it showed virtually all of our 81-mile day's ride was headed directly east. And at that point the temperatures were starting to warm up and that old east wind was warming itself up, too, to get ready for a big blow.
And blow it did. The terrain was fairly flat and the landscape virtually treeless. There was nothing to break the wind's force and very few downhills to give a break. Even if there was a downhill a lot of those stretches still required lower gears to compensate for the wind's force.
We encountered one significant downhill into the Des Moines River valley at Lehigh, about 18 miles from the end. Of course, that was immediately followed by a very long, steep uphill climb, the biggest hill we've seen so far on this year's RAGBRAI. I was thankful for the shade and break from the headwinds, although I was gasping for air by the time I made it to the top. A few miles after that there was another hill almost as big as we dipped into and out of the Brushy Creek valley.
And then it was just more of that grueling grind headed into the east wind. The route map showed a turn about 5 miles from the end town onto a road that headed north. I thought I would never see that turn but when it finally appeared up ahead I practically cried tears of joy. I knew the hardest part of the day's work was done.
Just a note about the photo above. HyVee grocery stores are an Iowa institution and in every town they are so supportive of RAGBRAI. Thank you, HyVee and, yes, even after a tough day like today I
Yesterday's east wind that someone said would bring in rain and cooler temmperatures appeared this morning to have brought only more wind. The wind today was from the south and, of course, a lot of the route had us heading into the south. So once again the afternoon part of the ride really stretched the lungs and leg muscles to push against the wind and some uphills, too, that greeted us on the way into Marshalltown. The temperatures were triple digits, as well.
But now we can rest knowing another day has been conquered. And what is that sound as darkness falls and we are here in our tent? Wow, it's actually raining. And what a wonderful cool breeze the rain has brought. The forecast is that it won't be a significant amount of rain but it will bring much cooler air for tomorrow's ride.
Before this week had started I had been dreading tomorrow's ride. It's the longest of the week and 84.8 sounded like an awful lot of miles. But after strengthening my leg muscles battling the winds yesterday and today I feel more than ready for the challenge.
We had lots of wind again but 90% of the time it was either a tailwind or blowing sideways. It was so wonderful that I didn’t mind the fact that there quite a few hills. Most of the hills were the roller coaster kind that aren’t that long and that are fun to descend. Also, that kind of terrain in Iowa means the ride is scenic with views of valleys and ridges blanketed with beautiful farmland.
I didn’t hear any statistics on amount of rainfall last night in Marshalltown, but it definitely wasn’t enough to break the drought. It did thunder and lightning and a severe storm warning was issued. We were already in our tent, but talked to some riders today who said people who had gone downtown on the shuttle were told the shuttles wouldn’t take them back to camp until the storm threat passed. A group in our campground this afternoon was making repairs to their tent and drying out their clothes in the sun. They said when the shuttle finally got them back to camp they discovered the wind had blown over their tent.
Even if the nights camping on RAGBRAI don’t have storms there are other hazards to watch out for. Have you ever experienced the frustration of leaving your car in a parking lot while you shop and then when you come out of the store you can’t figure out where you left it? That frustration can’t compare to what a fellow camper experienced last night. At 3:30 in the morning Lee heard me getting out of the tent to go to the bathroom and asked if he could walk with me since he’d forgotten his flashlight. When we exited the tent a panic-stricken woman saw our light and told us her sad story. She had gone to the restroom but then had gotten disoriented in the dark and couldn’t find her tent. We stumbled around with her awhile with no success and finally left her back at the restroom where she started so she could try to retrace her steps. It’s awful what an unorganized, huge jumble of tents fills a RAGBRAI campground. When the restrooms are far away like they were last night I always dread those middle of the night restroom visits. I could end up wandering around until daylight lost and unable to find my tent.
Here in Cedar Rapids we have a much nicer camping spot. The restrooms are close and the skies are clear. It should be a hazard-free night. I’ll need a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow is the day with the most hills on this year’s ride.
The traditional way to mark the end of the ride across Iowa is to dip your bike tire into the Mississippi River at the ending town. Today I joined the crowd of bicyclists pushing their bikes towards the dip site in Clinton, Iowa, just so Lee could take a picture showing I was actually there. All the hard work of the week pedaling from Sioux Center on the Missouri River to Clinton on the Mississippi River was finally done so it didn’t seem that important whether I actually got the bike tire in the water or not.
As always, I had a wonderful time on the ride. This marks the tenth year I’ve done RAGBRAI and I think it was the best year ever. I may have complained about the heat and headwinds and hills but that’s all part of the experience. When you’ve made it to the end town you tend to forget how discouraged you felt during those long stretches of pedaling when it felt like you were never going to make it to the end of the day.
We are now back in Iowa City, staying at Mike’s house for the weekend. We have to take the car to a mechanic Monday for some minor repairs. By Tuesday or Wednesday we plan to be on our way to Ohio to begin another round of visiting friends and family and exploring new and old places.