Archive for October, 2010

Nearing Omaha

I could probably be in the Omaha suburbs tomorrow if I really went for it. But I think I’ll take my time and take a couple of days to get there.

I’m about 15 miles south of Sac City, Iowa. I sailed down here today. The 70 miles was easy. There were times when I could coast for several hundred feet at 20-25 mph. The wind was directly at my back nearly the entire way. It was almost too easy. It’s going to spoil me for those days when I have to work like a bastard for 8 mph.

A couple of days ago when I saw the wind was going to be from the north today, and east tomorrow, I decided to head straight south today, and straight west tomorrow. It might be fun to just follow the wind and see where you end up. I can’t do it now, but it might be fun in the summer.

Yesterday I stopped into Okoboji Expedition Co. To fix my hub problem, and also make sure the front one wasn’t going to give me any problems.

Drew was the man in charge, he let me use the shop to take care of my business for a nominal fee. Plus they had a cafe, got some coffee, quiche and a smoothie (banana, blueberry, almonds and soy milk, of course.)

Low temp Friday morning was 25, I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag until the sun came up so I got kind of a late start in the morning, and had to bike around a lake to get to the bike shop. Didn’t get there till maybe 11:30 or noon. I didn’t head south until maybe 3 so I didn’t get very far.

I got offered a place to stay in Okoboji, and also a ride to Sioux City. Both kind of tempting, but after some thought I decided to continue on to where I was headed. Spirit Lake/Oloboji is a nice area, I wish I could have stayed a few days. But I know winter is coming, and feel pressure to keep moving south. So I will.



About two days before October 21, the day I picked to set out from Minneapolis on this journey I started to feel the fear. The fear of the unknown. I had been kind of sleep walking through life, entirely too comfortable even though I was financially poor. There was nothing to keep me on edge, keep me fully alert, no way to use all of my senses and abilities. I was merely going through the motions of living, not really living.

As the scheduled departure date grew near, and the fear set in, I felt myself starting to wake up from that half conscious state. It felt good.

I understand fear. It’s a familiar feeling. Something was whispering to me, “No, don’t go, think of how hard it will be and all the things that could go wrong. Where will you sleep at night? What if you get robbed? Wouldn’t sinking into an easy chair be nice?”

But feeling the fear gave me energy. I had committed myself to this, I knew the fear would come, knew the fear was exactly what I needed. That feeling of fear has preceded all of the most important things I’ve done. I knew I had to step into it, live in it, feel it, let it have it’s way with me, and finally step through it and see what’s on the other side. Like Tom Waits sang, life is sweet at the edge of a razor.

I finally got out of Springfield Thursday morning. I had to stop by Ricks Alternator and Generator, because I’d left my gloves there the day before. My rear hub lock nut had come loose and the cone had tightened up a bit. I didn’t have any cone wrenches, or any wrenches at all, so I stopped in to Ricks to see if he would let me use some tools.

He did, he even ground down a 15 millimeter wrench so it was thin enough to use as a cone wrench. I still needed to pull the cassette off and pull the axle to fix the problem, but thanks to Rick, I was able to get it ok enough to ride the 80-90 miles to the bike shop in Okoboji, Iowa.

Gloves in hand (haha) I set out. It was cold, and still pretty windy (20-30 mph) but now the wind was from the northwest, which was mostly favorable.

Never underestimate the power of the wind on the plains. I’m rediscovering that out here, it’s always windy, it’s just a matter of whether it’s favorable, or if you have to fight it. Fighting it is mostly a psychological battle.

About 30 miles south of Springfield I stopped at an intersection to check my map, and chow down on some trail mix. I’d been hungry for a while, and I’d been looking for someplace sheltered from the wind so I would be able to light my stove and cook some lunch, but I couldn’t find such place.

I was just putting away my trail mix when a white pickup rolled up to the opposite stop sign. It sat there for a minute or so even though there was no traffic. Then he rolled across the road and opened his door.

“Where are you going?” He asked me.

I probably said something like, “Well, my maps suck, and I’m not quite sure but I’m headed to Sprit Lake, Iowa.”

This began a conversation during which really detailed county maps were produced from under the seat of the truck, and he suggested a short cut through his farm, that would connect me to the southbound county road I wanted to be on. I probably divulged more about what kind of journey I was on too. I don’t always say where I’m really going, or disclose just how big a trip this is. In most of the small farm towns I’ve been in I can tell people I’m biking to the next town over. They understand that. But if I tell them I’m biking to Mexico, they get a certain look in their eyes. I might as well have told them I just flew in on a space ship from Jupiter. It does not compute. Why a person would ride a bicycle to Mexico is just beyond them.

After a bit more discussion concerning route, the farmer said, “You know, we’re just running into town real quick, but we’re about to have some pork chops if you’d like to join us.” I’m presuming it was his father in law with him in the truck.

Twist my arm. Hells yeah I’ll join you. He gave me directions to the house, about a half mile from where we were, and said, “I’ll call Sonja and let her know, she’s preparing the meal now.”

The house was amazing. Timber framed. Huge fireplace in which you could burn 4 foot long logs. They were doing just that. It was pretty nice to get in out of the wind and feel that heat radiating from the fire.

Sonja made me some hot tea and I sat down in front of the fire admiring the incredible space I was in.

I’m so bad with names, I am never with it enough to catch them the first time. And I can’t remember the mans name, I think it’s Tony, or Tommy. I apologize if you’re reading this, send me a note so I can get your name right. I’m going to use Tony now, for brevity.

As I looked around that space, how comfortable it was, and the obvious history the house had, it made me feel like I might be missing out on something. The fantastic great room with the two story ceiling and those exposed timbers. All the books surrounding the giant fire place on each side. The rack full of guns in the entry way. The aged wood floor.

I believe Tony’s grandfather built that house. Either his father or grandfather. He grew up on that land, and in that house. He lives a life I’ll never know, but I wish I could know what it’s like to have that kind of intimate connection with a specific place. A connection that goes back generations, and runs deep because he works this land, and knows it by heart. That kind of connection to a place, and surrounding community used to be a lot more common, but it seems pretty rare nowadays, and I can’t help but wonder if we’ve lost something very rich and meaningful along with it. I guess I’ll never know.

Tony cooked the pork chops over the fire. The pig came from his father in law. Best damn pork chop I ever had. Along with it, we had fire roasted peppers, wild rice, and sweet corn. Everything but the wild rice they either grew, or got from neighbors. I noticed they had one of Michael Pollens books by the fireplace. It always feels better to me when I know just where my food came from. In this case it came from the people who sat at the table with me.

After the meal my route south was clarified. Tony made a call to a friend down near spirit lake to inquire about camping. Gull point was suggested, and I set out.

It was an awesome ride with a mostly favorable wind, and the sun finally made an appearance.

I rode 82 miles that day and camped at Gull point. I had to run into the bike shop in Okoboji the next day. I’ll pick up the story there, the next time. I’ll also add more photos when I have wifi access.

The Gales Of…..October?

Soggy, real soggy.

“Superior it’s said never gives up her dead.”

I was singing that song about the Edmund Fitzgerald out loud, into the wind as I packed up my stuff this morning. It’s fucking howling out there. And I’m in the relative shelter of Springfield with it’s trees and buildings to slow the wind down.

I had kind of forgotten what it’s like to be out in the plains surrounded by miles of nothing but empty fields with a steady wind pushing into you. There’s nowhere to hide from it, nothing to slow it down. It just comes sweeping along. Out here there are homesteads on every few hundred acres or so. Those farmhouses are always buffered on the northwest side by a swath of forest and undergrowth, and sometimes a row of very purposefully planted evergreens. They are that way so that when the worst winter weather comes screaming in from the northwest the wind won’t come blowing right through their houses and barns.

I’m sure 150 years ago it was obvious to most people why farmhouses had a natural forest buffer on the northwest. But I find it interesting that something so simple and elemental as shelter from the wind has shaped how we’ve manicured the Earth. How something that’s been done for hundreds of years shapes the modern landscape.

Yesterday I rode into a real strong south wind. I had to work pretty had to make 10 mph on slight downhills. The bike, loaded, weighs about 100 pounds, and the paniers are kind of like sails in that kind of wind. When I would get 100 to 200 feet on the leeward side of one of those farmsteads it was amazing how much those clumps of trees buffered the wind, and I could make 14 miles an hour or so for a couple hundred feet. Getting into towns is also an amazing contrast from the open fields in terms of how much shelter from the wind they offer.

I stopped in Springfield after 3 hours of pedaling into that wind making an average of 8 mph or so. The next town with a grocery store was another 30 miles or so, and there’s nothing in between but soggy, muddy fields and wind. I couldn’t camp in those conditions if I wanted to. I’d be sleeping in a puddle, and the fly would get blown off the tent. It was also demoralizing struggling into that wind, with gloomy sky pissing rain, and nothing but mud to look at.

I asked the first person I encountered in Springfield about finding a spot to pitch a tent. Turns out there’s a real nice park (remember now, everything is relative: it has a couple of trees and a stream) in town with a campground. The camp ground was closed, but I spoke with someone at the chamber of commerce, she made a couple of phone calls and said it wouldn’t be any problem at all to camp there. She did ask me if I knew there wasn’t any water, and that the bathrooms were closed. Shee-it. It had a couple of trees and a stream, looked pretty damn nice to me. The town and those trees offered shelter from the wind.

Boy did it rain though. It rained real hard for over 6 hours, the six hours prior that it had just been raining lightly. I fell asleep so I don’t know when the rain subsided. When I woke up it was just sprinkling, but the wind was howling. It sounded like a freight train at treetop level. The tent would get buffeted every now and then, but for the most part I was sheltered. I really don’t want to find out what it’s like in the open fields right now. I just rode my bike 4 blocks through town and nearly got blown over.

I guess they load their .22's while walking downtown along the sidewalk in Springfield.

The police chief stopped by last night about 7 or 7:30. He said he had arranged for me to stay in the hotel for free if I wanted to. Since I was already set up, and I didn’t want to spend an hour and half packing up in the rainy darkness, I chose to stay put. But I think the offer still holds, and I’m going to let this wind pass before I set out again, so I might not be able to leave until Thursday. It would be real nice to have a place to dry out. I have some dry clothes, and my sleeping bag is dry, but my tent is soaked and covered in mud, all of my socks and jackets and shoes are soaked.

I suspect they think I’m a derelict and they just can’t let me stay out there. I’m not sure they know that I’ve chosen to do this, and that I have enough gear to be OK, if not comfortable. But as I’ve said, it’d be real nice to have a place to dry out, so if they offer to set me up, I won’t turn them down.

I have to go, I have a meeting with the police chief in 15 minutes.

Bottom Of The Hill, Left At The Silos

The unassuming building in the background was a goldmine of riches for me.


The last of the beautiful fall weather left Minneapolis with me. It didn’t come with me though. I don’t know where it went. It’s not here. When I made the decision that I was going to do this trip, I only knew that I could no longer exist in the space I was living in. I mean that in every sense. The physical space I literally called home, the city I lived in, the neighborhoods I frequented, but also the place I was at in life. My fire for life had died down to just a few embers. I only knew that I had to commit myself to something that would make me leave comfort for the unknown and would challenge me, test me, and make me stretch. I had to take a leap out into the unknown and push myself to rise to the challenge. It was the only way I knew I could but a bellows on those embers and stoke up my fire for life.

I got a late start Friday afternoon, leaving about 1 in the afternoon. It was a gorgeous day. I rode the Luce Line trail. I went out about 40 miles or so. It was enough pedaling for the first day. I camped on the grass of the horse trail next to the bike trail, and next to a cornfield, just before sunset.

I’d heard rain was predicted, when I woke up about an hour before dawn, I felt relieved to not hear the sound of rain on my tent. But two seconds after that feeling of relief went away, it started raining. Luckily only for a little while while I packed up and ate breakfast.

I rode into Hutchinson and went to a coffee shop to charge my cell phone. I was there for about 10 minutes when a friend that I worked with at Midtown Bike Center rolled up and leaned his bike against the window I was sitting behind. Ha! I knew he lived out west, but I didn’t know what town.

“Good to see you Chief Two Wheels, of the Midtown tribe!”

We bullshitted for a little while. The sky looked like it was about to rain, and he offered shelter. I hesitated because I had just started this trip the day before. I was looking forward to getting tough. It’s not just the biking that does it, it’s living outside, dealing with that you’re dealt. But at the same time, on trips like this, running into a friend who offers shelter and company is something that should really never be turned down. Boy am I glad I didn’t turn it down. It would have been a miserable night camped in a muddy ditch next to a cornfield in a cold hard rain.

Instead I got to start the next day in good spirits, well fed, rested, and all my gear dried out and repacked.  I had a decent tailwind to Fort Ridgely State Park. I got there before 2 PM. I could have ridden further, but I really wanted to camp there. If I had known that I was going to be riding into a 30 mph south wind today through endless tilled cornfields, I would have stayed there. It was pretty damn nice. Although after rolling through endless empty farm fields I call anyplace with a couple of trees and maybe a stream pretty damn nice. So it had a couple of trees and a stream. But it also had a really bitchin’ stone building (must be WPA, or CCC built) with a rad stone fireplace. And, get this, an outlet where I could charge my phone! And, check it yo, picnic tables to sit, work, and eat on! And, I was able to slide those picnic tables up to the fire and string a line between them so I could dry a few pieces of clothing I washed in the stream. And, fo’ reals, it had a roof! A roof to keep the passing sprinkles off me. That building had everything I needed, and it was right next to my tent.  I love those old stone structures, and with a few minor modifications, I could very happily call that one home.

I’ve met so many really helpful people. My maps suck, and my plan to use a google maps bike route didn’t work, so I’m winging it. I ask people what the best roads to get me where I’m going are. Although, out here in rural farm country, they don’t use street names or hiway numbers. Most of these people have a feel for this land. They came from it, they know it by heart. They’ve been here a long time. They don’t need numbers or names. I once asked a fellow getting out of his car in a small farm town where County Road 2 was. He stared at me blankly.

I rephrased it, “Where’s the road that goes to Springfield?”

“Bottom of the hill, left at the silos.”

Setting Out Thursday? Or Friday?

All the gear, more or less.

I’d been planning to head out Thursday morning. But I was also staring at a huge pile of stuff to do before I could go. I’ve got about 50% of it done. So I might push my departure back to Friday morning. Leaving one day later won’t make much of a difference in a two to four month bike tour, but it will make a big difference in allowing me to get everything done, feel good about it, and get my head screwed back on straight after a hectic four days.

I’ve got nearly all of my gear together, and roughly sorted it as to where I think it should go in the paniers or on the bike. I have yet to actually put anything on the bike though. Packing it up should be an interesting experiment and will probably take some time to do properly.

I also still have to plot my presumed route on my hardcopy state maps. I used Google maps “by bicycle” feature to find a route from Minneapolis to Nogales. From Nogales it’s basically one road to San Carlos. I’m going to transfer that route onto state maps with a highlighter. Having those maps will make it easier to deviate from the set route if I decide to.

I have just now figured out how to get photos from my phone to the blog, and how to update the blog from my phone. I stupidly assumed that there would be plenty of slick tools for mobile blogging. Not so. At least I didn’t find any. So it took a bit of research, and trying a few different options before I stumbled onto the combination of methods that I will use. I’m posting this from my phone, the first real test of my methods.

I’ve been working on whittling away at the pile of furniture and other detritus that has been taking up half of my dads garage since I moved out of my apartment last February. I made huge strides, and feel pretty good about getting it all cleaned up, sorted out, and down the the stuff that I actually want to keep, the bare essentials. If I wasn’t such a procrastinator, all of this stuff would have been done a month ago. If necessity is the mother of invention, then procrastination is the mother of lighting a fire under your ass and getting a shit ton of stuff done in four days.

Yesterday my dad handed me a printed copy of the US State Department travel advisory for Mexico looking quite frightened. He’d been doing some research for a train trip he wants to take through the Copper Canyon when he stumbled upon it.

“John, you need to read this.” Oh shit, I could tell from the sound of his voice, and the look on his face that this thing was going to ruin my day and plant seeds of fear that might take a couple of days to uproot.

“This thing is like eight pages, I don’t have time to read this now, just tell me what it says.”

He said some things that were even more alarming than what the actual document says. Because when he was reading it, all his brain was absorbing was kidnapping, torture, ransom, bandits etc…I read it when I had time. It does sound frightening. But I’ve read State Department travel advisories before, and they all pretty much sound like that. They pretty much say “Don’t go and don’t do anything.”

I don’t want to make light of the situation in northern Mexico. Charles Bowden had an excellent article (The Siccario, a Juarez Hitman Speaks) in Harpers magazine several months ago. It was a shockingly brutal look at professional killers, and the mayhem that occasionaly happens in Juarez, and presumably other border towns. I’m not expecting all rainbows and unicorn farts, but I don’t want to let the media I get from two thousand miles away to shape my perception of what a place is. When that happens, the perception is always vastly different than the one that’s formed when you’re in the place. My perception of Nogales at this moment is nothing but kidnappers, banditos, and cartel assassins, because that’s all I ever hear about. I need to get down there to get a feel for what it’s really like.

That’s going to take some time. Probably eight weeks. My next post should be from the road, or trail, whichever applies.