Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Places I Go and People I Meet

Pedaling where Lewis and Clark Paddled

The simple chalkboard menu read: “Monday: salmon patties, tater tots, coleslaw, strawberry cake and sweet tea. Tuesday…” If we wanted a hamburger we would have had to wait until Thursday. So it was salmon patties for all. We were hungry and the food was good. It was served with a smile and lots of conversation. In our spandex, we sat at a long table with farmers in coveralls and flannel shirts. One man joked that he also cycled—“the real kind with a motor.” He was called Preacher. Preacher was a grizzled man with lots of tattoos but a warming smile and full of talk. He had just returned from a rally in Arkansas where he rode his 3-wheeled motorcycle. “At the rally, I saw naked women riding motor cycles.” Preacher, a retired Missouri River pilot, is now a farmer. This particular café was between Jefferson City and Boonville, Missouri. Like many small towns that we cycled through, this café did not look like anything special—cinderblock structure, gravel parking lot with non-operating gasoline pumps, and a sign offering gas, food, and groceries. What was special was inside!

I and my friends, Joe (from New York State) and Hans-Peter (from Switzerland) started our westward journey in St. Louis Missouri. We planned a route that followed Lewis and Clark’s travels up the Missouri River as they explored the Louisiana Territory for President Jefferson. Like Lewis and Clark we met many interesting people along the way. Cycling out of St. Louis, we met the first of many new friends: the café owner who served us breakfast; the city guide who got paid to ride his bike and answer questions from tourists; and the park rangers who snapped group photos for us under the Gateway Arch. Our daily narrative, photos, mileage, and maps can be found at http://oldmensbikeride2009.blogspot.com/

Once we crossed the Missouri River we cycled much of the 225 mile Katy Trail that follows the Missouri River to Kansas City. In Defiance, Missouri we stopped to get coffee and decide if we would cycle to Daniel Boone’s Missouri home. As we pulled into town (3 stores, a bar, and several homes), we were met by the owner of those 3 stores (a general store/bike shop/gift boutique). While very friendly she was also very cruel. She let us smell her special coffee beans that just came out of the roaster but then told us that her coffee service was not yet in operation. She sent us across the street to the bar for coffee. We were crushed and had to settle for weak coffee and the smell of stale beer.

Further along the Katy Trail we met John. He offered to cycle with us to the next village to show us where to get good coffee. John seemed to know all the farmers gathered outside the café/general store. Once inside, he introduced us to Britney, the effervescent teenage store manger, coffee maker, and breakfast server. She sat with us and joined in our conversation. She did not have a menu but offered to make us several styles of egg. One style was called “daddy eggs,” a term that none of us knew. When asked, both John and Britney gave us the “look” that meant everybody knows daddy eggs. So we each ordered a daddy egg and as best as we can determine it is an egg fried in a ring with its yoke broken but not scrambled.

Later that morning, we met several cyclists who reported flood problems on the Katy Trail 2 days ahead. One couple told us that they cycled several miles in near knee-deep water and lugged their bikes over another section where the cliff collapsed and blocked the trail. This information took us off the Katy Trail and on the road where we met Preacher.

Days later, we stopped at the historic town of Arrow Rock, Missouri. While the docents provided interesting discussions of the town’s history and restoration, we got a different perspective on local history as we cycled out of town. An elderly gentleman waved us to a stop in front of his home. He told us that he was the fifth generation to live there. The home was built in 1835 by a great grandfather. He built the house for his wife before he left to make his fortune by taking trade goods to California, a 2 year journey. When he returned home his wife was pregnant…she then moved out to live with his best friend who owned the Arrow Rock Tavern.

Our arrival in St. Joseph, Missouri had 2 surprises. First, we were met by a local television reporter who filmed our arrival and interviewed us for the nightly news. She was particularly interested in Hans-Peter’s journeys in the United States. The second surprise was when friends from Chicago met us at our hotel. They had been tracking our progress from our blog and decided to meet us for drinks and personal updates of our journey.
In the town of Rock Port, Missouri, we were struggling with the fact that the town’s only restaurant was closed. However, we did find a grocery store. Rather than locking up our bikes we decided go in the store separately. Joe went in first but took forever to return. We soon found out that we were the central attraction and the crowd was growing by the minute. The 2 store employees could not do enough for us. While helping us get food they had lots of questions and comments. They were not alone and other customers were just as curious. The town doctor walked in and he was introduced as being an avid cyclist…so our story began again. Dr. Mike is a family doctor and a 3rd generation doctor in a family full of country doctors. He enjoys the rural life and the freedom it provides him to roam on his cycle. He and his wife have cycled in many states and in Europe. He examined our bikes like he would new patients, commenting on their differences and similarities. Our simple grocery stop took an hour but it was an hour well spent.

Our morning in Tarkio, Missouri started out with breakfast at a farmers’ café. Again our spandex did not seem to matter to the blue jean clad farmers. They were thrilled to tell Hans-Peter about American farm sizes and farming methods. When it was time for us to leave, the waitress told us that one of the farmers paid for our breakfast before he left. Wow, what a wonderful start to a great day!

Leaving Missouri, we cycled on the Wabash Trail to Council Bluffs, Iowa. Along the trail, we met a man picking mushrooms. He carried a golf club that he swung to chase the snakes away. The mushroom picker revealed that he lived in Council Bluffs, our day’s destination. Getting there would result in an 88 mile day, a long cycling day for Hans-Peter. Hans-Peter accepted a ride with his new friend but Joe and I cycled on; making this our longest, but not our hardest, cycling day.

We took a layover day in Council Bluffs to get some bike work done. My bike took only minutes to repair but Joe's took hours. Steve Batten, the owner of the True Wheel Bicycle Co, took charge of Joe's bike and as soon as one problem was fixed another was revealed. In the end, Joe was thrilled with Steve’s diagnostic and repair skills and the resulting price. The next morning, as we were leaving Council Bluffs, we passed several groups of children heading to school. One little boy got excited at seeing us and started to wave his arms and yell, “hasta la vista, amigo.” We were disappointed that we did not photograph the boy, but some memories are worth a thousand pictures.

Although Sioux City, Iowa was our destination, we camped in S. Sioux City, Nebraska. You could say that we were having a one-night-stand in Nebraska because this was our only night in this state. Just before crossing the Missouri River, we stopped at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and met the director and some of his staff. They asked if we had a blog and, of course, we obliged and gave them our address. The next morning we met 2 workmen near our campground who recommended that we have breakfast at the nearby Townhouse Café. The owner, Mrs. Curry greeted us with fresh coffee, good food and genuine curiosity about our travels. She has owned and operated this café for 16 years; serving food from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. She said that she likes her café and having family nearby but she would also like to travel.

We headed northwest out of Nebraska, through the corner of Iowa and into South Dakota. A strong tail wind pushed us quickly to the town of Elk Point. Upon entering the town, we were told that the best place to eat was the Legion Hall. So we headed down Main Street for our second breakfast. As soon as we entered the Hall, we knew that we were at the right place. A group of women were there for their weekly gathering. They quickly took charge and welcomed us to Elk Point. Sylvia, a spry woman, wanted to trade her electric scooter for one of our bikes. While no trade occurred, she enjoyed posing for pictures. Within 5 minutes of our arrival, Kelly Kruithoff, Editor of the Leader-Courier Newspaper showed up with camera and note pad. We became multimedia cyclists.
We were welcomed into South Dakota by the lovely ladies of Elk Point. However, the next day, South Dakota showed us a very different kind of welcome. We had strong north winds and cold temperatures. After 7 hours of cycling, we only covered 33 miles. To add insult to our day, we cycled a circuitous route of country roads. The direct route on the highway was only 23 miles. So the day was mostly about the “suffering cyclists” and not lovely ladies and cafés.
The next day, we arrived in Springfield, South Dakota before noon and stopped at the Libby Stake House for lunch. Everyone in the restaurant was dressed in their Sunday clothes except for us in our spandex. While we were trying to discuss our day’s destination and eat lunch, we were swamped by other patrons who either wanted to hear about our trip or provide input to our plans. Two middle aged women wanted Joe to go to the casinos with them. A grain storage operator had a thousand questions about us, our bikes, the routes, etc. A business man offered Hans-Peter some alternatives to our route. Four road cyclists told us that they were the ones that yelled encouragement to us as we battled yesterday’s head winds.

On our way to Pierre, South Dakota, we cycled together until Fort Thompson where Hans-Peter decided to spend the night. Joe and I cycled on. In hind sight our decision was “stupid.” Our journey turned out longer, windier, hotter, and with more hills than anticipated. It was totally desolate. I decided to hitchhike but Joe kept cycling. Since there were no passing cars, trucks, or planes, I kept moving, trying to catch Joe. As the day wore on and it got later I was worried about reaching Pierre. It was hours before I got a ride. However, I did not see Joe as I sped into town in a big pickup. When I got to our hotel, Joe had already settled into our room. He told me that he was picked up hours earlier by a trucker who said that he felt bad about not picking up the first cyclist he saw.

Leaving Pierre was a lot easier than getting there. About 30 miles into our route, we met 3 other cyclists. These guys were cycling the Lewis and Clark route in sections and this was their last one. Dave, Terry, and Lauren are from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota and were taking turns driving a support van. At that point, we had planned to head 12 miles east to Onida for the night. However, these guys were heading north. While their route was twice as long as our planned route, it had a strong tail wind. We chose their route and flew at 20-25 mph for the next 25 miles to an alternative lodging. Even with these great tail winds, we made one stop. We saw a man sitting on the tailgate of his truck holding a sign that read “OLD GUYS WELCOME.” The man knew our names and knew our eating habits. Craig McIntyre, South Dakota’s State Bicycle Coordinator, had been following our blog and decided to give us a big boost. When he brought out the caramel sticky buns, 2 kinds of cookies, and several types of drinks we knew that he seriously followed our journey. Leaving Pierre was much nicer than getting there.
About half way into a 61 mile day, we stopped in the town of Kenel on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It was the only food stop on the day’s route. We pulled in just as the owner, Ernest Martinez, arrived to open his store. He apologized for the lack of provisions and said that he expected a big order this week’s Pow Wow. We selected a healthy lunch of oatmeal-raisin cookies and orange soda. While we munched, the real richness of our lunch emerged. Ernest told us about his grandfather, John Bear King, a WWII Code Talker. Ernest was proud to represent his family at the 2007 dedication of Code Talker Hall at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. Despite the popular belief that all code talkers were Navajo, many native tribes provided them. He showed us plaques awarded to his grandfather and a medal that lists all the Tribes that provided code talkers.

About 20 miles outside of Bismarck, North Dakota, we were exhausted from the headwinds and suffering from the cold temperatures. I asked a farmer if we could take a break in his barn to get out of the wind and cold. Instead, Arlan invited us into his home for coffee. When he opened the door he yelled to Shirley that “they had company.” Arlan said that he has 2 sections of land (1,380 acres) overlooking the Missouri. He has about 400 head of cattle that he grazes on this land. During 2004, the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, Arlan said that lots of cyclists passed by and some stopped to enjoy his view of the river. Before we headed back into the wind, Shirley said “that the North Dakota wind never stops and when it does they declare a holiday.”

We cycled through parts of The Little Missouri National Grassland in North Dakota and stopped in Grassy Butte for quick refreshment. Like most towns its size, it had one “do it all store.” This one sold plumbing and automotive parts as well as light groceries and snacks. The owner, Don Trotter told us that “the coffee was free because some things in life should be.” Next, he offered us some of his wife’s home made cake. He said that despite the fact that he tries to sell pastries, she is always bringing in a cake to share. Don showed us a 5 foot skinned snake and said that it came from his farm. He had a “live and let live” philosophy about snakes. In fact, the snake kept his farm free of mice. However, when he got a new dog, things changed. The dog and the snake decided that the farm was not big enough for both of them. The dog lived.

From the Grasslands, we cycled into the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was spectacular! We dropped down into the park and then had to climb out. However, that did not distract from our wonderful day. In the Park, Joe asked the Ranger where he could photograph buffalo. The Ranger gave Joe a cautious look and said “buffalo don’t like bicyclists.” He went on to explain that buffalo have poor eyesight and when they see a bicyclist, they think it is competition. Joe joked that he was fast but the Ranger quickly gave him a reality check. He said that “buffalo can run up to 35mph and they can get that fast in just 2 strides. While Joe still took some buffalo pictures, he made sure that I was always between him and the buffalo.

Just before we left North Dakota, we stopped at both Fort Buford and Fort Union. Fort Buford was established in 1866 and housed both cavalry and infantry units. Fort Union was not a military fort but rather a trading post. Fort Union dominated the area’s fur trade between 1828 and 1867. It belonged to John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. Lisa and Dave were dressed in period costumes. They described life at the fort and served us boiled coffee in tin mugs.

Crossing into Montana, our cycling got easier as our direction changed from north to west. In Culbertson, we stopped at the local museum. Not only was it free, it had great exhibits and the ladies served us home baked cookies. The museum was filled with artifacts from the surrounding community and depicts life over the last 100 years. At our hotel, we met Robert, a youngster at 60. He was cycling from Seattle to Minnesota along the northern tier of the United States. He took 3 weeks off work to do this and needed to average 77 miles a day to meet his goal. He told us that he is "not smelling the rose but looking for bragging rights." We had dinner together but found it difficult to wish each other great tail winds…since we are going in the opposite direction.

We continued westward through Montana and ended up in Havre after 1600 miles of cycling. At that point, our paths separated. Joe met friends from his home town and packed his bike in their van for his return trip. I boarded Amtrak for my trip home and Hans-Peter cycled to Portland, Oregon for his flight back to Switzerland. It was a great bike trip that gave us wonderful memories of the places and people along the way.

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