Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Great River Road

Photos by Joseph Insalaco

It is difficult to think of the Mississippi River other than as a wide fast-moving torrent with locks and dams that allow long strings of barges and tugs to carry the Nation’s wealth. While it is mostly this, the River does have humble origins in northern Minnesota. Appropriately, that is where our journey began—in the little stream that emerged from Lake Itasca and is considered the birthplace of the Mississippi. There, Joe and I stood in its waters and enjoyed the calming sound of shallow water flowing over rocks. As we traveled south, we passed through many wonderful river towns dating to the 1800s, met some really nice people, and watched the river grow into the Mighty Muddy that we all know.

The Mississippi River Road is a network of roads complied in the late 1930s as a scenic car route. While many of these roads are bicycling friendly, in 2008 Bob Robinson published a guide specifically for bicycle travel, “Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail: A Complete Route Guide along the Mississippi River.” This guide provides bicycle friendly roads and bike trails on both sides of the river giving the cyclist many travel options. As best laid plans go, our planned route changed several times as we headed south. Our journey from Bemidji to St. Louis totaled 1,200 miles and was completed in 21 consecutive days of cycling. Our daily journal, detailed route, mileage, weather, and photographs can be found on our trip blog (http://greatriverride2011.blogspot.com/).

Looking at a map, I see the Mississippi River as a north-south blue line bisecting the country. However, from its headwaters the river first heads northeast to within a 100 miles of Canada before turning south. About half our trip was spent cycling through Minnesota and the other half cycling through parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.

Minnesota’s route was over gently rolling terrain with an overall drop in elevation of just a few hundred feet. In Minnesota we were mostly on rural roads and bike trails but yet our routes took us through many good sized towns. For example, between Grand Rapids and Palisade we cycled for 50 miles on scenic, but desolate roads with no traffic or services. Some days we had miles of trail that took us off the roads and closer to the river. Our 70 mile ride to St Paul, Minnesota included over 30 miles of bike trails.

After Minnesota, we planned to cycle through Iowa (skipping Wisconsin) and Illinois before finishing in St. Louis, Missouri. However, we changed our plans several times. Before leaving Wabasha, Minnesota we stopped at the Eagle Nest Café for breakfast where we met Mel, one of the Café regulars. He said that the Wisconsin side of the river offered a much nicer ride for the next two days. Using his computer, Mel showed the Wisconsin route and the other café patrons agreed with his suggestion. Crossing over the Mississippi River we left Minnesota for a great ride on Wisconsin’s 2 lane roads with minimal traffic that took us to La Crosse. We spent another day in Wisconsin and cycled to the town of Prairie Du Chien. Generally these roads were flat with good shoulders and overlooked the river.

From Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin we crossed the Mississippi into Iowa. We quickly learned why Iowa has a reputation for tough climbs. For a short distance we cycled along the river then climbed our first bluff. After cycling on the bluff, the road dropped back down to the river. Then we had another climb. While the climbs were not long, they were steep and we climbed and dropped 6 times as we headed to Dubuque, Iowa.

To avoid more of Iowa’s climbs we changed our route from Dubuque and headed into Illinois earlier than planned. From Galena, Illinois we headed south along the river on country roads to Savanna, Illinois and the next day Rock Island, Illinois before heading back into Iowa. Our final route change occurred when we could not find lodging in Pleasant Hill, Illinois and had to cross the river to spend the night in the town of Louisiana, Missouri. From there we cycled 70 miles to Grafton, Illinois and the next day crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri for our final ride into St. Louis.

For me, a cycling adventure is more than just miles, routes, and terrain. I also enjoy exploring towns and stopping at anything that seems interesting. From the smallest towns to the largest cities our route offered many unique points of interest.

Bemidji, Minnesota, the first city on the Mississippi River, is an Indian name meaning “the river runs through it.” The town lies 32 miles northeast of the River’s headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park. After a round trip ride to the Park, we visited Bemidji’s famous icons—Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox companion.
These monstrous statues stood near center city. We also walked around the downtown enjoying the town’s “art walk” and historic district.

Near Grand Rapids, Minnesota we spent several hours at the Forest History Center, a recreated turn-of-the-century logging camp. There we enjoyed the center’s museum and immersed ourselves into the logging camp. The camp was staffed by docents in
period costumes including a blacksmith, saw filer, clerk, cook and lumberjacks who demonstrated logging techniques, described life in a logging camp, sang and played music, and told period stories.

In St. Paul, Minnesota we stopped at the historic flour mill in the heart of the downtown. Initially, we focused on the mill and the large Grain Belt Beer sign across the river but soon got diverted when we met Bill, a Segway tour leader. .
After his group passed, Bill let us ride his Segway along the bike path allowing us to fantasize about replacing our bikes with these fun machines.

Wabasha, a small town near the southern end of Minnesota of our river route was a place not to miss. The town has maintained its historic character but also has a modern resort distinction. In addition, the town hosts the National Eagle Center where we participated in its educational program. Not only did the Center show us several different injured eagles undergoing rehabilitation, we also saw eagles in their natural habitat flying above the river. One of the town’s “claims to fame” is that the 1993 movie “Grumpy Old Men” and the 1995 movie “Grumpier Old Men” were based in Wabasha. Before leaving Wabasha, we stopped at the Eagle Nest Café for breakfast. We asked the patrons about the movies. They said the story was set in Wabasha but filmed elsewhere. With some bitterness, one man concluded that “the film people found a town that looked more like Wabasha than Wabasha.”

To get to Dubuque, Iowa, we cycled some tough rollers. Once there we found a better way to climb a hill. In 1882 a rich banker wanted to go home for lunch but the buggy ride took too long to go around the hill and up to his home on the buff overlooking the town. The banker solved this problem by building a private incline railway. This tourist railway is now called the Fenelon Place Elevator Company and provided us our easiest climb of the day.

Near the end of our travel in Illinois, we noticed many barns with large quilt
patches painted on them. An internet search revealed that they were part of a barn quilt project. We liked them and found ourselves stopping at each barn to take pictures and admire the many different patterns.

We met many wonderful people as we headed south. Some of them became extra special because of their help, an offered smile, or just their desire to welcome us into their lives for a little bit.

For example, one of those wonderful people owned the Gosh Dam Place Motel (near Deer River Minnesota). Getting to the Gosh Dam Motel we had to cycle 12 miles off the highway on some very rural roads. We missed some significant clues along the way that would have had us call ahead for reservations or make alternative plans. Numerous trucks passed us, all pulling boats. When we got near the motel we saw a large lake surrounded by packed campgrounds, RV parks, and cabins. The motel’s parking lot was also crowded with pickup trucks. In our defense, neither of us fish nor knew that it was fishing season. We entered the packed bar attached to the motel and asked Linda, the owner, for a room. Despite being swamped serving customers, she did not laugh but rather made reservations for us at a motel 12 miles away. Linda was our trip’s first trail angel.

On the morning we met Babe, we wondered if we looked malnourished, in need of mothering, or if we were just charmers. We stopped for breakfast at the Roadside Family Restaurant in Aitkin. There Babe, our waitress, took charge of our meals. We both wanted the breakfast special—one pancake, one egg, and two slices of bacon.
Babe did not think that was enough food for “two hungry bikers” and told the cook to make our blueberry pancakes extra large. Our one pancake extended far beyond the plate and was half an inch thick requiring us to eat it starting from the center. Before leaving, she insisted that we also take 2 of her huge fresh baked cinnamon buns. We each ate most of our pancake and took the buns for lunch.

At another breakfast stop we met more wonderful people. Arriving in Burlington, Iowa mid-morning, we expected to have a choice of breakfast places. In its downtown we asked several people where to eat and the best that was offered was either the gas station or a 2 mile ride out to the highway where we were told there were many places to eat. With a heavy heart we parked our bikes at the gas station. There we met a man who told us that “Jerry’s Diner, a very little place, was only 2 blocks further on our route.”

So we headed off to Jerry’s Diner which was actually 8 blocks away and not very visible. Jerry’s was truly a small place with only 10 stools at the counter and no tables. We squeezed in and were welcomed by Michele, the cook, and several of the customers. Michele had the warmest smile and a twinkle in her eyes that made us feel extra special. Even though we were hungry and our objectivity may be questioned, the food was fantastic. The price of our breakfast was also amazing: two eggs, coffee and one very large pancake was only $3.50.

Our route on the next to the last day took us over the Illinois River to Grafton, Illinois. To cross the river we took a ferry which was the same ferry we used two years earlier when we cycled west following the Lewis and Clark route. Another coincidence was our repeat stay in the historic Ruebel Hotel in Grafton. This was our next to last night on this trip and 2 years ago our second night was at the same hotel and same room.

Before starting our ride into Grafton, we set a goal of cycling 70 miles and arriving at our hotel by 11 a.m. Despite the many hills, food stops, flooded routes, and photo opportunities we made it into town by 11 o’clock. However, our actual mileage was 2 miles short of our goal.

We expected an easy ride for our triumphant entrance into St. Louis, Missouri. However, the day was anything but easy. Because of predicted early morning thundershowers we delayed our start until 6 a.m. (that was a late morning for us). Before leaving Grafton, Ilinois we had fresh doughnuts and coffee at Kim’s Bakery. About 8 miles into our ride the sky got black, lighting danced just to our west, and Joe let out an ungodly shriek. On the last day of our ride and in the worst weather, Joe had his first flat tire. (My 3 flat tires were all on deserted roads during nice weather.) No sooner did he get off his bike than the sky opened up and we got drenched. Once we got back on our bikes we cycled another mile and found shelter at an abandoned gas station. When the storm abated, we headed out again on a bike trail. However, the bike trail was so flooded that when our pedals were in the down position, our feet were underwater.

We arrived in the town of Afton, Illinois where we had a short breakfast stop as the weather began to clear. From there we cycled on the levee with an asphalt trail. Eventually, the asphalt turned into gravel. Just when we thought that things were going great, the gravel ended and we sank into mud. It was so soft and sticky that we could not move. Mud was packed between the wheels and fenders and the wheels would not turn. The mud was so deep and thick that bikes stood by themselves. In addition when we lifted our feet, we had a ton of mud on them. With great effort we drug our bikes off the trail and onto the grass embankment. Instead of cycling the “Mighty Muddy” we became the less-mighty and very muddy. The muddy section was about 100 yards long so we had to push our bikes along the levee’s steep embankment before crossing the Mississippi River into Missouri.

We were filthy and would have welcomed a rain shower as we pedalled our final miles into St. Louis. While it did not rain we did get a slight head wind. Joe, the optimist, said that a head wind was good because it dried our clothes. This is the same friend who during the earlier lightening storm commented that it was great that he was cycling with someone taller than him. As our journey ended, we talked about our next adventure and I contemplated raising Joe’s bike seat to make him taller.