Chapter 6 of HFM Wandering resumes late on a humid Omaha morning as I prepared to ride my bicycle 400 miles to Minneapolis.
There’s always a feeling in me when embarking on a new bike tour that’s hard to describe, a sense of dread and anticipation as I commit myself to days of purgatorial riding. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a natural at this by now, and have seen myriad curiosities, but those moments are diamonds in a rough. Riding through the countryside is generally boring, inefficient and a literal pain in the ass. I guess I’m just a masochist at this point because I keep doing it and loving it.
The route I planned from Omaha would take me northeasterly as direct as possible a course to Minneapolis, missing out on any riding on the banks of the Missouri River, as well as the cities of Sioux Falls or Des Moines. Had I more time I would have liked to visit one or the other, but I was on a timetable to see my boy Justin up in Minnesota. I cut through the northwestern corner of Iowa on the way, notching two new states for me. I’d find the land in between these two points surprisingly empty, their singular focus being agriculture. Crossing a place like that on bicycle is like weaving through a void.
I said farewell to my hosts, Min and Nick, over a late breakfast and began my five day journey by crossing the Missouri into Council Bluffs. The drop off from the urban confines was swift. For the next four days, crops and pasture would be about all I’d see. Most towns were small and only momentary reprieves from the sea of green. I made my own quilt trail deciphering the patterns on each barn I passed. The land was nearly barren of trees, except for where they served to mark a residence, each akin to an oasis in a vast desert. I mused in my head on whether there’d be more trees if you cut and pasted the island of Manhattan anywhere into this countryside.
It’s kind of amazing to see how much food is grown in this region of the country. The fields of corn and soy can really seem endless, and were the only crops I saw in cultivation. They do create some beautiful patterns of gold and green at the right angles, amidst an otherwise crushing monotony. It’s amusing to me that there isn’t any culture of eating tofu out here with how much soy we produce. Locals told me much of it goes to animal feed and biofuel production.
Navigating this stretch of land felt a little bit like a real life corn maze. Google Maps, my foundation for navigating these trips, tries to get you off highways, but has no way to filter dirt or gravelly roads, which I never want to ride on with a loaded bike. From the Mississippi west, many side roads are unpaved. Thus, the default navigation strives to find these bucolic, barely trafficked farming roads that often turned in to dirt. I kinda got the idea on which places would likely steer me awry versus when I should just stay on the less-pleasant highways, so my backtracking was minimal. The trafficked roads weren’t that bad anyway, but it’s always ideal to not be sharing any pavement with cars.
I made my way through Iowa in two nights. I stopped in Denison on the first, camping in a baseball dugout that insulated me from overnight storms with a corrugated aluminum roof. I saw a dog there that I thought belonged to the folks playing an evening soccer game I spectated, but it was still around in the dark and even followed me out to the highway in the morning. I’m normally pretty adversarial to dogs while on my bicycle, but this one was giving me an adopt me vibe that I felt yank at my heartstrings before it gave up the pursuit.
Another bright, uneventful day and I made it to Spencer on the second night, and feasted at a Subway attached to the local Walmart. Those two service giant behemoths can feel like a vegetarian’s only friend out here sometimes. I had barely finished setting up camp before a storm blew in overnight, again. I had adequate shelter under a tree so it wasn’t the worst, but come on!
I crossed into Minnesota north of Spirit Lake on day 3. I remember getting particularly vexed ordering a veggie burger at the local dairy only to find to my chagrin it was a hamburger with the staple veggies added. Who does that? I got a refund after explaining my frustration.
That border area might have been where things felt the most empty to me. I remember coming to a four way intersection that was flat and featureless every which way that I just sort of gaped at. There weren’t even state signs for my troubles. The byzantine route I took had me crossing some roads really far from highways, so I was comfortably alone with the corn.
In that wide open area, I spent an hour or so watching a storm hovering north of me far in the distance. I changed my route east in hopes of dodging it and rejoiced when it offered me cloud cover from the sun. I still wound up cursing my luck as I saw it get progressively mistier and darker around; another storm was soon to come. With no real easy shelter to take, I just decided to go for it and fought through the terror of being struck by lightning while feeling entirely exposed on the plains on a hunk of steel. It passed swiftly, and I made my way the rest of the day at a leisurely pace to a campground (with shower!) in the town of St James on a beautiful lakeside.
The next morning was full of foibles. I left my bluetooth speaker out and it shorted out from the dew. I then had to eat the chagrin of leaving behind a bag containing some legally purchased goods from Colorado and California that you just can’t get in Minnesota while at the local gas station. I assume it just fell off my bike; I had my phone chargers in it and was juicing up my phone off an outlet outside the building. I’ve lost a lot of stuff on this trip, including another camera lens, but this instance just felt dumb. I realized 10 miles out after wanting to brush my teeth, but I couldn’t bring up the willpower to bike back for it to look and so wrote it all off.
I hung out in Mankato, Minnesota, for a bit that day at a posh library with a fountain inside. Mankato was the only medium sized city I went through this trip and it offered a nice reprieve for me. I always check each town’s library I stop in for any books for sale; here I scored 2008’s Pulitzer Prize for literature, Olive Kitteridge, for $2. I rode east hoping to leverage the Singing Hills bike trail, but construction made it impassible, and the road it was adjacent to too highly trafficked for my peace of mind. I bailed back onto some middle-of-nowhere roads and found myself in Montgomery that evening, 60 miles south of Minneapolis. I got stormed on one last time for good measure that night. It was some damp riding all in all.
On the fifth day, I finished the ride, sliding into the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield and shouting for joy on Justin’s street; He gave me a quizzical look from his doorstep but still came in for the hug. Justin was always more CJ’s buddy, but word trickled down the grapevine on what I was doing, and his invite to stay was one I graciously accepted, not only for the hospitality, but for the chance to really get to know someone I’ve been around for years better. He moved from NYC to Minnesota two years back with his girlfriend, Franny, and the two of them have started putting together a wonderful life here. They’re now engaged as well! We spent two nights together, mostly relaxing and drinking, before they left for NY.
From Justin’s, I bicycled about 20 miles northeast from Richfield to the suburb of Shoreview, another Minneapolis suburb, to see a new Rossetti for a night. If you remember Tarryn, who I met biking TransAm in Idaho last year and stayed with in LA, this was her little brother, Stevie. I don’t normally like to just stay one night with someone, but that’s how our schedules all worked out, and meeting a good friend’s family is something I’m always into. He and his girlfriend Christine became quick friends even though we just chilled for what felt like a moment.
My third and final stay in Minneapolis was my longest, in the Seward neighborhood with Jesse. Four years ago, he wound up staying on my couch in Brooklyn as a friend of a friend of my roommate’s, and his curious character was enough for me to add him on social media and keep up on his life. Well, I hit him up as a sort of quid pro quo deal, and he accepted, letting me drop in to his life for three nights. He occupies a cozy space with his girlfriend, Ella, her sister, Adelyn, and roommate, Elliot, and his cat, Christopher. All of them have various artistic passions that they are working to achieve while paying the bills with day jobs, which reminded me a lot of my people back in Brooklyn. The atmosphere here really felt like home.
I kind of just dropped in with whoever was available to do whatever while there. Jesse and I went thrift shopping, where I replaced some worn out threads, and he directed me to the Minnesota Institute of Art for a day of free learning. I went out to a creek with the rest of the crew and later dropped in on their coffee shops. Alone, I moseyed out to the Mall of America for a crash course in consumerism. Justin described this place as “Times Square times Times Squared squared”, so I definitely had to see it for myself. A weekday afternoon walking in circles and not spending any cash turned out to be pretty chill and meditative experience.
My exit from Minneapolis was via another Craigslist rideshare, this fella driving from Minnesota to Chicago and willing to drop off in Madison, Wisconsin. The catch? He was departing at 5:30 AM. Well, he was nice enough to come right to the apartment, and I hopped on with my bike. This guy has an international business involving drones for crop dusting, so he definitely wasn’t in it for just a little gas money. The ride was a nice one, especially because he had kitties he loosed in his van once we hit the highway.
Side note, Madison is not connected by passenger rail at all. That hitch saved me a couple days of bike riding. It’s funny to learn that wouldn’t have been the case if not for Scott Walker’s election 8 years ago. He made one of his first actions as governor nixing plans for a connecting rail line from Madison to Minneapolis that was federally funded, turning down $800 mil from the government earmarked for its construction. Sounds nuts to me, but Scott Walker has made a name for himself as one of the more odious and divisive Republicans out there, and his reelection this year seems in doubt. I hope he loses; Wisconsin deserves better.
In Madison were my dear recurring friends, Lucky and Amy, now hightailing it east to make it back home before school resumed days later. They might be my charm for scoring rideshares, as fortuitousness in securing one played a hand in catching them in Colorado a month back. That day with them was a comfortable one, spent at a campground on one of Madison’s lakes (did you know the city’s geography constitutes an isthmus?). We got lunch in town, beers and provisions for dinner and breakfast before we split again with plans to meet at the end of the trip in Pennsylvania.
I biked into the city proper the next day. Madison’s got a decent bicycle infrastructure, but first an aside about their nonsense of asking for a fee from riders on the Capitol City Trail in the southern outskirts. I’d never seen that before. If the trail’s going to be primarily recreational, levy a parking fee for people who drive to use it, rather than an arbitrary fee on road bikers. If that’s ever practically enforced, I’ll just go back to riding the roads. We need to do everything to encourage cycle commuting, and the better the bicycling infrastructure in your city, the more likely people are going to want to visit there (& contribute taxes). Biking infrastructure is a demonstrable indicator of quality of life; Madison had a good amount of it and looked thriving to me.
Visiting Madison was an opportunity to connect with an acquaintance from the beginning of the Appalachian Trail, a man dubbed “11:30”. He earned that nickname by being an early riser and the first to camp each day. We clicked and exchanged social media accounts in the first month, then I never saw him on trail again as our paths diverged. It was really cool to drop in on his life again when he hosted me for a long weekend and had the opportunity to each talk about how our respective thru-hikes went, and what else has happened in our lives since then. Honestly, our conversation went pretty deep, touching on a lot of our personal fears, struggles and triumphs. The mortar of shared adversity is a powerful bond.
My stay in Madison was a fun one, one of the more active in terms of activities. A board game night, a hike on the Ice Age Trail, an impromptu drop in on an antique car show, and bike rides around the lakes of Madison were just some of the activities we did together. On my own, I was able to get in another night of Magic: the Gathering at the local comic book shop, even selling back some rare cards I was using as a bookmark since LA, which amazingly didn’t warp at all. I got an opportunity to photograph Madison’s Pride Parade on my last day in town before 11:30 gave me a lift to Milwaukee.
We concluded our hang after lunch at a hip Mexican restaurant with vegan fare in Milwaukee’s Kinnickinnick district. I had set up a couchsurf arrangement in this new city in the Brewer’s Hill neighborhood, and proceeded there, meeting my new hosts, Melissa & Josh. Melissa’s a hardcore Couchsurfer, with a whopping 400 references on the service, all of them positive. It’s interesting dropping in on someone like that, who pretty much has a system locked in for having random people walk in to their life for a few days and have it as the status quo.
Since they’re pretty used to having surfers around, I knew I had to engage them if I was gonna make the most of my limited time in town. Melissa was a fitness buff, and hooked me up with a hot yoga studio that had a $10 for 10 days intro membership. I joined her and Josh for climbing as well. I found that my yoga and climbing skills have atrophied, but a shoulder strain that I acquired my last time climbing in LA had at least dissipated enough so that I could enjoy myself on the walls again. Melissa also tipped me off about one of the local health food joints doing half-off hot bar in the last hour of business, a solid tip for scavengers.
My last event in Milwaukee was a fancy dinner with Kate and Nick. Over small dishes, we found a lot in common. The two of them are entrepeneurs who have been experimenting with “mini lifing”, which was a new term for me, but basically is a cousin to my current lifestyle. They did an apartment swap and lived in Paris for a few months to escape the dreadful Wisconsin winter, while still keeping up their jobs remotely. This isn’t dissimilar from my life, but a little more cultured and less on the edge. I was back in the Kinnickinnick area again and we got a little mural walk in despite it being dark out. Milwaukee was an excellent surprise on this trip.
My next stop was one I looked forward to for a while, Chicago. There’s a lot going on here in our nation’s third largest city, and I had a great layover here a year ago on my way home from Oregon via train. I would stay with “Olive Oil” when I got there, another acquaintance from Appalachian days. First, I had to get there.
I opted to ride my bicycle down from Milwaukee as I heard the riding was good; I kept my expectations high and wasn’t disappointed. Up to half my way was on protected paths. I opted to keep the hundred miles distance a chill ride and split it over two days, camping on the Illinois border near Waukegan. One of the places of note I passed was Great Lakes, Illinois, where navy recruits do their basic training. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of Lake Michigan until I was in Chicago’s city limits.
Olive Oil is definitely one of the more bubbly people I knew from the Appalachian. We crossed paths periodically between Virginia and Vermont over our thru-hikes, and after exchanging social media accounts, I kept up with her running and Chicago life and hit her up. Our mutual friend “Slim Rims” stopped in while bicycling across the country earlier this year too. She lives with her boyfriend, Joe, a doctor and gamer. I thought I’d try a run with her while there, but the idea of getting up at 5:30 and running 15 miles deflated those hopes. Even when I was marathoning, I never got up that early, and I’ve not kept up as diligently with my running as I’d like this trip. Even though I can cycle a centennial any day I want, the muscles for biking and running don’t overlap 100%.
I stayed a long weekend with Olive Oil, concluding with a trip to Ravinia to see some outdoor jazz. I then biked down to Chicago’s South Side for another few days of couchsurfing, with Zheng. He’s a graduate student at University of Chicago from China, and I got a few good days in with him to balance the burden of my time in Chicago. We shared a few meals together (along with his Polish roommate, Anya), checked out a fire juggling event and I even got my gnarly beard sheared off at Obama’s barbershop in Hyde Park; there was a signed chair there and everything.
I had a rideshare arranged to get me to Detroit from Chicago that no showed, so I spent my last night camping on Lake Michigan before figuring out the path forward. This may have been the most brazen of my stealth camps, I’ve avoided urban areas for obvious safety reasons, but I scouted an especially concealed spot off the lakeshore bike path. Of course, I set up in a sudden thunderstorm and got pretty wet. It was worth it for a surprisingly peaceful night of sleep and a beautiful dawn over the lake the next morning.
After that rideshare fell through, I decided to change tack and go to Fort Wayne, Indiana. A brash bicyclist named Sam lives there that I met in Santa Fe, and when I said I was nearby, he not only invited me to stay but told me about a commuter train to South Bend that would get me halfway. After getting burned on Detroit, I decided that would be a solid next step for Labor Day weekend. I wouldn’t have had to camp if that train was configured a little better, only allowing bicyclists on specific trains in and out of the city, with the last one on a weekday being at the start of rush hour.
That morning’s train dumped me in South Bend, after I spent an hour sitting next to another bicyclist with a nauseating case of halitosis. I lucked out catching a regional bus to Fort Wayne from there. Normally, these buses are pretty anal about bicycles, but I was able to sweet talk my way on, even if I paid too much ($38 for 2 hours travel). It was that or spend a day and a half doing the 100 miles in high heat and humidity. Regardless, here I was in Indiana for the first time. Sam met me at the Fort Wayne bus station, and we did a bike tour of the city after I dropped my baggage at his home. I didn’t expect the city to be have a large Burmese population, apparently refugees settled here a generation ago, and we got to start things off with a spicy tofu stir fry at one of the local restaurants that gave me a good sweat.
Fort Wayne has a working man’s vibe, as evidenced by the manufacturing history, and the bars we went to with dollar PBRs. Sam and I didn’t get up to much of anything ambitious and just enjoyed the holiday weekend. I learned a bit about just what he was up to on his bicycle in Santa Fe, and found out he was doing Route 66 in reverse, which is nuts to do in Summer. I guess as nuts as you need to be ride across Texas anyway.
At this point, I was unsure if I would still go to Detroit, as Fort Wayne is orphaned from public transit. Sam insisted Detroit should remain at the top of the list. So, Ohioan competitors like Columbus and Cincinnati fell by the wayside as I opted to spend two of my increasingly limited days to cycle to get to the Motor City via Toledo. I’d start the 150 mile ride once the holiday was over. That is where the sixth and final month of #HFMwandering begins.