Campsites make up about a third of our accomodations, and a few of them fulfilled the expectations of the term fully. The Thomas Mitchell Park in Mitchville, IA had scenic walking bridges, a fishing pond, and other amenities its visitors could enjoy. A day later we found the Springbrook State Park to be much in the same mold, maintained by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and two older caretakers who decided to stay committed to their regular schedule of grass cutting, despite mandatory cutbacks from the state office. Both sites appeared to be a logical place for a young family to spend a weekend, and it seemed many did.
Most campsites we walked the bicycles into, however, were not like Springbrook or Mitchell Park. They did not have swimming areas, basketball courts, nature trails or were next to dams. There were no lawn to throw a frisbee or pavillions to have a picnic under. We peddled slowly into the Cottonwood Campground in Ligonier, Indiana because the driveway was gravel and hard on the tires. The grounds was no more than an acre or two along the road with a loop made with crushed stones, a shack designated as the bathroom, and four RV campers. We knocked on the camper that was next to the sign "Manager." A woman with long gray hair and a wheathered face stepped out holding a cigarrette away from her. "What can I do for you, Honey," she asked. She would call us that often before we left the next day. She only charged us for one tent because ours were both small and and her boss was away and be none the wiser, she explained. It was an offer made by every such campsite host, each of which was older, tired looking, and mildly intrigued at the sight of us. Rain was on its way that night, and if the lightening was too much we were to go into the bathroom and wait it out. In the end, Paul dealt with it by turning on his iPod, eating Gobstoppers and drinking whisky from a naggin while he got wet, while I slept soundly enough a few feet away in my own tent.
The four RVs were quiet as it grew dark, offering little clues about the people inside them. I did not know if they were people who bought a camper and pulled it into the Cottonwood Campground to get away for the summer, because I did not know what they would be getting away from in a pulloff on the edge of Ligonier, Indiana. I did not know what staying in a condensed living space in a condensed community offered them, of if it was enjoyable. I could not state that buying a camper was getting something of their own and that living in it for the summer was proof to them that they still had some control over the world they lived in. The only thing certain was that they, unlike Paul and myself in our small tents, did not get wet as the rain continued.
I awoke to find Paul staring at his drooping tent with his arms limp at his side, the empty naggin in his back pocket. We shook out the rainflies the best we could, getting the front of our shirts wet again. "A big storm is on its way," the camp manager said, stepping gingerly through the wet grass. "The weather channel shows it getting here in an hour and a half. Honey, maybe you can stick around until it passes." Paul and I looked at each other. After reasoning through various scenarios with our host in the end we headed into town to eat breakfast, leaving half of our clothes in the dryer and 50 cents on top of it so the manager could put the second load in while we were waited out the storm in a cafe. While we loaded our bikes a tall, round shouldered man with bleached hair all the way around his body came out without his shirt. "Big ass storm on its way," he said. "You're going to get soaked on those bikes."
"Bigger than last night's?" I asked.
"It will make last night look like a sprinkle," he said, laughing. "Do what you want, but..." He walked away, shaking his head and smiling to himself. As we left the driveway another man emerged from his RV in a greasy ball cap.
"Hell of a storm on its way," he said. He grinned, exposing heavy plaque on his teeth.
Paul and I sat in a Subway, using their free wi-fi to plan our route for the day. Empty sandwhich wrappers were pushed to the side of the table, with a few piece of lettuce and half-eaten tomato that fell out of the bread rollls. A young girl was at the cashier, looking over at us often because we were her only customers. She energetically brought us a pen and sub wrapping paper to write on when we asked for them, and filled our water bottles from behind the counter. It began to sprinkle, but it did so through sunshine, and then the timid rain stopped. When we mounted the bikes again I almost felt bad, because I knew the people at the Cottonwood Campground in Ligonier, Indiana in some way needed that storm, much worse than we needed to avoid it.
3 Most Scenic States East of The Missouri River (on our route)
A man from the eastern half of the country will believe that Iowa is a flat desert of cornfields, and having only made it to Iowa City on the Greyhound previously, I believed it as well. Nonetheless, outside of Guthrie Center (where we started one day) to Minden (where we finally arrived, 85 miles later, in the dark and tired) there wasn't a level piece of pavement. Iowa is impressive for its pure homogeneity of corn and soybeans, which roll endlessly among the occasional grain silo or wooden farmhouse whose paint is chipping away. There is a distinct "Iowa-ness" that it holds true to, and that can be appreciated.
Other the laid back nature and old brick aura of Boston, if you find yourself on the right highways going through the stateland you'll be able to appreciate the dense forests on either side of you and the twisting swamps in the bottoms of valleys. It can feel like you're cycling through a national park for a few days. The Berkshire Hills offer grand vistas as a reward for making it up them.
3. New York
The state of New York gets tagged with an urban perception that is unfair to the 400 or more miles above the city, which is rural and largely occupied by dairy farms. New York is a pleasant transition from the uniformly wooded states in the Northeast to the sea of corn of soybeans in the Midwest, marked by sloping hayfields surrounding dairy cattle and deciduous forests around the edges of each valley.
August 5th, 2010
Here's to You Again, Iowa City
Iowa City appeared quiet and tired, even for the summer. Some blamed the 21 ordinance that kept minors out of bars, and other suggested it was the natural lull after the grad students had moved out. The sparingly few that did pass through the ped mall did so with seemingly no destination in mind. Iowa City was the first place I made a claim to away from home, and subsequently the first place I would come to know that was not a farm in Upstate New York. It was a place that I began to make friends that I saw regularly, and somewhere where I found those with ideas both similar and more open than my own and a cobbled pedestrian area full of people with interesting ambitions.
I wanted to walk the streets and give in to nostalgia, wildly reminiscing in a way unknown to the people I passed. Some buildings had changed. There was no Paul Revere's offer $1 lunchtime slices. It had become a restaurant with a more avant garde concern, as had the lesbian sex shop next to it when I first came to Iowa. The Q Bar was now the Blue Moose and the price of a pepperoni slice at Pizza on Dubuque had gone up 50 cents. Still, the Iowa City that I had spent 4 years in and left several times was mostly in tact. I knew that I could have sat on any park bench and spent the day recalling memories from the things I saw. However, I couldn't afford the time in the day I spent there because I was always en route to meet another person, a complication I was grateful to have.
There were good friends I did not get to see, for which I genuinely feel bad and ask for forgiveness and a chance to catch up with them on the phone. For the others, this was the first time I saw them in a year or more, and I was not sure when I would see them again. There are some that I call a few times a year, and many I keep track of one way or another, but there was the suggestion in my mind of pressure associated with having the type of meaningful face time that would be the engine to keep the relationships viable until the next time we could cross paths again. Most conversations started the same way, with the "How have you been"s and "What are you doing now"s. Then they made space for bringing up old times before slipping into inappropriately course remarks and observations, where all good times start and on which all friendships are founded. And then the night was on.
There was a 67 year old man who got me through my undergrad years with his wisdom, whiskey, and meatloaf. There was a friend who's cat I vilified in a national publication. I stayed with a confidant who let me wake him up at 2:30 in the morning each night to be let in and who frankly pointed out that it was gross that I did not wash my cargo shorts for three weeks and made me put them in the washer. I met with those I lived with or worked with at various times in my Iowa residence. I was given a warm welcome and a lollipop that had a scorpion in it by the staff of the English Department. I marveled with a pal that we were still sitting next to each other six years after our class together. I said hello to the people in the streets that I would have passed regularly five years ago, and that told me that Iowa City still had the patience to let me reminisce, and still the grace to call me one of her own.
August 1st, 2010
A Moment for Roadkill
Knowing that Ireland was a small island with few woods and natural habitats, I had prepared myself to be a liaison for Paul to the wildlife of America. I would bring attention to the porcupines, white tail deer and other animals as we saw them in the fields we passed. We have not met any deer, coyotes, or foxes as of yet, and as it turns out, the species we have seen were easy to point out. Every day we had to navigate around an upwards of 25 rotting corpses on the side of the road. This means we will have swerved around well over 1,ooo- possibly 2,000 animals in various states of decay. There is the occasional opossum or cat, but the majority are found to be woodchucks and raccoons, with, actually, about 3 raccoons for every groundhog. The abundance of raccoon carcases surprised me, with the only explanation being that they are active in the evening, when cars are least likely to see them. A woman in a cafe with a husky voice asked if we rode at night. "No," I assured her. "We certainly do not."
They are all in one process of putrefaction or another. Sometimes a paw or limb would be laying detached up the road. Their faces, if there was much left to be read, shown various degrees of shock or anger that the last bit of them was taken into the sky by turkey buzzards. For these rotting mammals the question is not why did the chicken cross the road, but how the hell did it make it?
Paul points out the roadkill when he is ahead of me so I don't hit it and puncture a tire with its bones. I'm at a loss for any other way to honor the fallen wildlife of America. I would think that they have a lesson to bear, as they melt into the earth they came from, but it seems that any that I can come up with is too simple or something I don't won't to ponder on: Be safe. Sometimes you don't make it. It sucks to be hit by a truck. For now, I determined, I will continue to focus on avoiding them. Being one less tire that runs over their decaying flesh is my tribute and humble offering to the roadkill of the United States.
July 26th, 2010
It was only recently that I realized we were two young men in tight clothes heading to San Francisco.
I've never waved to bicyclist. Most people don't, and I blame the clothes. It's hard to maintain dignity in bright, off-putting colors that pull tight over (in my case) an unshapely figure. I must clear this up immediately: I will be wearing the baggy style of shorts. That was the only condition on which I agreed to this trip.
One pleasant discovery (to help counter the awareness of the need for anti-chaffing gel)is bicycling socks. They are expensive- sometimes as much as $10 a pair, but they are padded in some places and very breathable in others.I can only describe it as this: when you walk your feet are having sex with the floor. I have a yellow pair depicting a stick figure falling off a bicycle and horribly banging his head. Only time will tell if this is foreshadowing.
- Posted before we left
A few days ago we passed through the Berkshire Mountains on the west border of Massachusets. They offered long, twisting climbs followed by downward accellerations that quickly brought us to the bottom of another hill. Although we tried not to show it, for the sake of the other rider, I suspect our emotions have went the same way. Like a song stuck in the head, the word "San Francisco" stays with me the entirety of the day. Sometimes it's because we have to repeat it when people ask us our business, and sometimes I must use it myself as a justification for a series of hard peddling, as if the town itself was waiting on top of the hill. There are times when it is a heinous sounding place full of wretched, deformed people, and when a numbing fatigue settles in my legs or mind I curse the city that tricked me into making it my destination.
Before The Berkshires we spent the day passing through rolling forrests and swamps of bright vegetation that stretched along valley floors and curved out of view. It was then easy to reconcile why we had chosen to spend the summer this way. Pictures should have been taken, but it was hard to choose one tree-lined gulley opening before us to the exclusion of others. They betrayed the anticipation of further pleasant moments to come and more inspiration from the landscape ahead. Suddenly, San Francisco was a term of victory.
The Act of Waving
Cyclists seldom get waved to. When I drive a tractor or a bulky piece of farm equipment those that pass me seem compelled to acknowledge my presence on the road- not just by giving my haybine a wide berth on the pavement, but by lifting a hand off the steering wheel and sometimes extending it out an open window. I, too, involuntarily recognize County dump trucks and tractor trailers when we meet, whether out of a habit I developed myself or some perrenial respect for the bigger dog. A bicyle, however, I only try not to hit.
I was surprised how bike-friendly Boston proved itself to be. Many streets had cycle lanes with freshly-painted men on bicycles, and although they were stick men, were still able to show their enthusiasm for being a cyclist. When we navigated through the heart of the city cars were patient with us, allowing us to change lanes or avoid parked vehicles without pressure from them. We had only cycled 100 yards when someone stopped and asked if were were cycling across the country.
My daily route prior to the trip was mostly through the town over the hill, Bishopville, whose only institutions were a methodist church and a chainsaw repair shop. Most roads I had seldom went down before (even though I was a neighbor of sorts) and there were more homes in which I did not know the people inside than names I recognized on the mailbox. I glanced at the windows of houses when I passed them. Sometimes I imagined an older couple sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and watching the world go by. There were some people I knew well along the route, including my 4th grade teacher, my grandparents, and several people from the Methodist church. If it was not these people I waved to, I may have not been waved to back.
We left Boston in a late afternoon sun and a swell of traffic and urbana that flowed through towns whose names I would have to look up. I did not see much of them, because my head was bent down, focused on Paul's rear wheel while he tried to take us through the intersections. Cars beaped, and I did not know if it was at us, or at some other frustrations in their life. Sometimes there were bicycle lanes, but the asphalt was often cracking or littered with gravel. The paint depicting the happy cyclist was often worn away, leaving dismembered parts of the rider floating in the lane. His body was rough, making the load on our back wheels tremble as we had to run over him again.
It was hard making myself get on the bicycle when the sun was coming up, but more mornings than not, I did. I stood up on the bike to get over the first big hill and then I could coast into the back roads to Bishopville. I went the same way every morning, following one path of asphalt until it turned into gravel, then turning around to peddle to my grandfather's horse pastures on the other side of town. I began to pick up on the rhythms of Bishopville in the early morning. At the same time each day mothers pushed their children out the door to wait for the bus, a sheep farmer walked back to his house for breakfast, and if the day was cool I'd come upon my grandfather and his team of Percherons. I began to recognize the trucks that passed me every day, and they recognized me, because they put their hand up on a kind gesture as the back of their head disappeared down the road. People I had not seen before sometimes appeared in their screen door to shout "Good Morning." In my habit of morning cycling I became part of the routine of a rural community. I looked at the glass windows of the houses I passed, and sometimes, if I really stared, I could see someone looking back, waving.