Last day on the Big BAM

The last day of our 315 mile ride could be summed up as headwind/sidewind/headwind/sidewind/headwind/sidewind/break for breakfast/headwind on a busy road with a terrible shoulder/sidewind/headwind/sidewind/drizzle/headwind/sidewind/headwind/long ride on Mexico Gravel Road/headwind/drizzle/done. Or at least that is the way it seemed to me.

The original route for this ride was supposed to take us from Moberly to Arrow Rock — a historic site near the Missouri River that was the start of the Santa Fe Trail as well as a stopping point for Lewis and Clark — where we were supposed to camp for a night, and then from there we were to follow the Missouri River back to Columbia on the Katy Trail, touted as one of the most beautiful biking trails in the Midwest. Flooding along the river has closed roads in that area and parts of the trail, so the route was changed a few days ago and we basically turned around and retraced our second and first day rides through farm country and Mark Twain State Park and camped in the Perry town park again, before riding back to Columbia on Friday afternoon.

I stopped to get some lemonade when we returned to Perry on Thursday night (mmm, lemonade), and the cashier said “it’s just so weird to look at the park and see all of those tents.” And it must be, and it’s also a crazy cool aspect of these rides like RAGBRAI and BAM and BRAN and all of the other multi-day organized rides. You essentially have a caravan of travelers descend on a town and they are all dressed in fluorescent tops and tight shorts and shoes that make a clicky sound when they walk around and they set up this little tent village in a field and crowd the cafes and bars and stores in town, and then the next morning they are gone by 7 am.

Several of the people we met this week were either going on to another multi-day ride or had just come from one in another state. Dennis and Melanie, friends who rode a tandem bike and live in Kansas, also do the ride across Kansas every year. They finished well ahead of us on Friday and when I commented that they were awfully fast, given the wind, Dennis said “you know, if we didn’t ride when it’s windy, we would never ride in Kansas because there is always wind.” A couple of gym teachers from Rolling Meadows, IL with whom I chatted quite a bit were heading to a ride in Nebraska next week, and will be doing another in Wisconsin later this summer. There is the spirit of adventure together with a spirit of community on these rides and it is a lovely way to experience this country.

One of the pleasures of this particular ride is that there is live music every night in camp, and we heard some great performers this week. The Thursday night band drew a big crowd of locals who brought folding chairs and blankets and got up and danced or huddled together as the sun set and it grew kind of chilly in the park. The Kay Brothers joined up with the Burney Sisters, all self -taught musicians from central Missouri, and the 11 year old fiddler drew crazy applause. Kids in baseball and softball uniforms ran around and played on the playground equipment while their parents listened to the music and the chamber of commerce sold “crumbly burgers” which are the Missouri version of Iowa’s loose meat sandwiches and the music ended at about ten, when the residents packed up their chairs and blankets, and the cyclists climbed into their tents and then we all woke up at 4:15 am when a herd of cows started making a racket. Our early start Friday got us into Columbia early, exhilarated and tired, just as it started to rain.

The ride on Thursday — Dan’s birthday — was beautiful, perfect, really. We left the big park at Moberly and rode through city streets while kids with backpacks were waiting for school busses – summer vacation hadn’t started there yet – and waved shyly as we passed by. We had stops at the Union Covered Bridge and at Mark Twain’s birthplace, where we saw the cabin in which he was born as well as the handwritten conclusion of Tom Sawyer, and at Mark Twin Lake which wasn’t even there when he was alive; a dam was built on the Salt River and created the 30 mile lake. Some young girls were selling snacks and drinks at the top of a long hill on our route, hoping to raise money for a trip to Disneyworld, and we were glad to support them and cool off for a bit.

So at the end of this Big BAM, my legs are sore and my spirits are high and it will be a while before I am able to bike again … but it was very satisfying to ride for five days and travel 315 miles and meet people who came from all over the U.S. for this ride as well as the people living in the Missouri towns and cities we visited.

Nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”

– Mark Twain

The Big BAM

In the summer of 2017 we did our first RAGBRAI, a ride that spans the state of Iowa, starting at the Missouri River and ending at the Mississippi. It was quite a thrill to ride with 10,000 other people through cornfields and small towns and to have people wave and cheer us on, and feed us pancakes and pie, and it was sort of like a week of summer camp on bikes.

We heard about some other long distance, supported rides on that trip; it turns out that many other states have rides across their states. And this morning we are starting on the Big BAM, which is typically a ride across Missouri and now is sort of a ride around Missouri.

Our drive to Columbia MO yesterday took us through many of the places we biked last summer on our way to New Orleans. We had a very pleasant and too-short stop at the home of my college roommate, Lynne, where we ate a delicious brunch that she cooked for us while we caught up on her upcoming gigs (next one: a tribute to Bette Midler), and then drove south where we could see lots of flooded farm fields and arrived here just before 6 on a perfect summer night.

Our campsite is on the lawn of the Bass Pro Shop on the edge of town where we had a chorus of frogs outside of our tent all night. The group spent the evening at the Broadway Brewery listening to live music and chatting with other cyclists about the trip. Columbia seems like a very nice college town and we will spend another night here at the end of the ride.

It is 5:56 am as I am writing this, and I am cozy and warm in my sleeping bag, listening to the sounds of others starting to take down their tents as Dan is slowly waking up. Today we will ride 62 miles to Perry and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day.

Tour de Pepin

Last weekend we drove to Lake City, MN to do the Tour de Pepin, an annual organized ride that follows Lake Pepin, a beautiful glacial lake that is part of the Mississippi River. We opted for the 72 mile route, though were envious of the riders on the 35 and 50 mile routes as they had a ferry ride waiting to take them and their bikes back across the lake on this beautiful old ferry.

It was a lovely way to spend a Saturday. And this ride was sort of a test, although it was intended to be just a training ride when we registered. I have been having some trouble with my hip and unable to run or walk or sit or stand or sleep easily for some months, and I am not going to get into the boring details … but it was a relief to get in my bike and have it feel wonderfully normal to pedal all day on a bike and travel a long distance.

We had stops for rhubarb pie and beautiful views of the lake, and rode through fields of blackbirds as well as next to a field where there was a machine gun shoot happening (!!), and we decided that it went well enough that we could do our next planned biking adventure as a last hurrah for my hip, which is going to be replaced with a shiny new one later this month.

Homecoming

We flew home from New Orleans on Tuesday, June 19 (well, Wednesday really). Walked up the many steps to our front door at 3:30 am after an eight hour delay at the MSY airport, with our pannier bags and a suitcase that my sister shipped to us in New Orleans, fumbling for house keys that it turned out we didn’t have, marveling at how much everything had grown since we left, and anxious to climb into our own bed after so many nights away and a long night in a cold airport.

When we left on our trip, the lilacs were just reaching their peak and the lawn was hardly long enough to mow…while we were gone, the peonies bloomed, as did the azaleas, and the grass flourished and so did everything else and we came back to a lush array of perennials on the hillside of our backyard.

We learned, while delayed in New Orleans at the airport, that my family had planned to surprise us on arrival at the gate in Minneapolis – with signs, flowers, balloons, the whole works – and we were really touched. After discovering we would arrive in the middle of the night, they dropped it all off at our house and so we got to enjoy it the next day.

The dog was kind of weird for awhile after we got home — we think he was afraid we would leave again – and then he came around and was back to his usual nose poking, tail wagging, dog kissing self after a day or two, and he continues to stay close by when we are home.

Dan went to a 9:00 meeting a few hours after we returned, and I went in to the office a bit later and was humbled and delighted to find that my team had put up a “Welcome Home” sign with balloons in the office and had a box of crazy great donuts to celebrate the end of the trip. We were so, so grateful for our colleagues, who adeptly took care of the work underway and reached out when there was something critical at work but otherwise let us focus on the work of bicycling and traveling, and cheered us on.

Josh did a fine job of taking care of the house and yard while we were gone, in between his two summer jobs. In the first few days after returning, we caught up on laundry and gardening and grocery shopping and bill paying, and things got back to normal pretty quickly. Being “back to normal” for us includes listening to a lot of live music, in addition to our work and household and people and pet responsibilities. The first weekend we made it out to see our friends Wilkinson James perform a great late night gig at the Aster Cafe with the Mississippi River and the Minneapolis skyline in the background, and the next day we were delighted to see many people we knew at the first Grand Oak Opry concert of the summer, just off of the river in St. Paul, under a 200 year old oak tree in a St. Paul backyard, where we heard our friend Chastity Brown perform, and we got big hugs from her after the show and chatted some about Tennessee, her home state, and our ride through small towns there. We also had a lovely dinner with friends Tim and Kevin who were visiting from Hawaii, and celebrated a milestone birthday with our dear friend Nancy, and made gumbo for my family and neighbor Ted while listening to a New Orleans soundtrack, and ate from food trucks during a Spoon concert with friends Paul and Cindy on a perfect summer night. And then we were honored to be celebrated with an al fresco dinner at Bernie and Cindy’s house with a group of dear friends, with a Mississippi River menu that included Lisa’s lemonade and Minnesota trout and Iowa corn and Cajun shrimp and grilled pork and corn bread and Izzy’s ice cream (Cindy’s suggestion: “get rocky road,” a fitting selection.) We were also humbled and delighted by cards and notes from friends and family, and by the gift of a beautiful book of Thomas Paquette’s paintings from our friend Sally; he painted his way down the Mississippi from the headwaters in Itasca State Park to Louisiana, and the paintings are gorgeous. Perhaps it is not surprising that after we walked over to Now Sports to pick up our bikes when they were reassembled on the 4th of July, we rode downtown to the Day by Day Cafe for breakfast, and started talking about our next long bike trip over eggs and toast and coffee.

The truth is, we miss it. We miss that rocky road; we miss being outside and experiencing the unknown and the simplicity of days just riding bikes, even though we love being back home, with people who know us and with all of the comforts of this life we have created. And we miss the south in a way that we did not expect, and the food and people and history and extraordinary beauty we encountered.

It was humbling to discover that so many people were reading this blog while we biked, and we have been struggling to figure out how to end, or continue it…we really liked writing together, and we realize that our day to day life may not lend itself to an ongoing blog. Or maybe it does.

Today Dan took his bike into a local bike shop, Grand Performance, after he had a recurring flat on the Old Abe Trail outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We camped there over the weekend so we could attend the Eaux Claires festival (did I already say we love live music?) This was year four of the festival, and it has consistently been an interesting mix of creative musicians and artists and writers assembling at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers, which is unlike any other festival in terms of collaboration and the unexpected. We typically camp and bring our bikes along, and Dan’s back tire was looking pretty low yesterday before we set out on a 50 mile ride. I will let him tell the rest of the story because it is like the perfect bookend to this homecoming post…

Dan: Lisa has written beautifully of the odd experience of returning to the familiar after a sojourn in a strange land.

I have a couple of observations. When anyone suggested in New Orleans that we should ride home, I could only think ‘that’s absolutely impossible to even consider’ and yet, now, a couple of weeks later, my thinking is that we were getting this adventure cycling thing figured out. Of course we could have done it. Because we’ve learned you can do these things. One day at a time, you can do almost anything. (Including change the world, I hope.) So now, we are planning our coming trips, even before the end of the season. Stay tuned.

And on machines and mechanics: I really admire the bike, I tried to write of that during our trip. It is a marvelous machine – relatively simple, very efficient and mostly true to the original designs of the 19th century. But a bike needs attention, especially when pushed the way we pushed them. You all know of Lisa’s tire troubles. So this weekend, riding in Wisconsin, my tire went flat. I didn’t have a reliable replacement tube and Lisa had to ride 20 miles back to the car and return to pick me up.

Today, I took the wheel into one of St. Paul’s high performance bike shops, near campus. I chatted for a few minutes about changing tires, about methods and tools. Then I left the wheel with the mechanics and came back in a hour, the tube replaced. They determined that I’d picked up a tiny piece of wire which pierced the tube. (Sound familiar yet?) I thanked them, bought some new, and supposedly better, tire levers, and went back to work. At the end of the day I went home to install the wheel and found it to still be flat after resting in the back seat for a couple hours. The shop was still open, so I went right back. Different mechanic this time. I waited and watched him remove the tire and tube and locate the hole. I asked if there was another wire poking through – he said the puncture wasn’t on the tire side, but the rim side. He replaced the rim tape (is this sounding familiar yet?) and put on another new tube and I walked out, thinking “well, more evidence that even expert mechanics can goof it up.”

Which we already knew. So, bottom line – I’m going to do it myself from now on. I’m going to work on the machine (zen and the art of bicycle maintenance) and understand that the machine I’m working on is myself. I look forward to getting my hands dirty.

We have more miles to go. Thank you, friends. We could not have done this without you.

Day Twenty Eight: New Orleans walkabout

It was strange to be on foot all day yesterday rather than traveling by bike, but we had a lovely time wandering around the city.

We woke early and walked down to the Mississippi river and it was humid – tropical, even, by nine o’clock. Overheard the captain of the steamboat Natchez direct his crew through their drills (“we will now do the man overboard drill”), watched stone carvers put the finishing touches on a monument that is a tribute to immigration (donated by immigrants who arrived here under other presidencies), listened to some good music in the streets including at the National Parks Jazz monument where they had free jazz yoga underway with a ranger playing the piano, walked through the farmers market, and eventually took a break for beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde. The highlight was our stop at Faulkner House Books off of Jackson Square, located in a home where the writer William Faulkner lived for a time. The store is small (max capacity: twelve customers), but impressive, with a great collection of new and rare books. We walked in, looking a little sweaty and ragtag, and Dan asked if they had first editions of Faulkner’s books, and the woman (Joanne) working there said they were in the locked case, and Dan said that well, we were not likely to be buying any, and Joanne said “and I had such high hopes.” That was the start to a great conversation and she later put Dan in charge of the store while she stepped out and returned with a rare first edition of The Sound and the Fury valued at over $19,000. “The past is never dead, it is not even past” is a Faulkner quote that we cited many times as we made our way through Mississippi along the Natchez Trace, and the complex, tragic characters in his novels seemed very real and close by during our time there, so it was great fun to visit the books and rare letters at that lovely little shop.

The afternoon was spent in part by the hotel pool reading, and later I went off to find a salon for a pedicure while Dan took a nap (we are now doing vacation things!) We were delighted to discover prosecco and chocolate-covered strawberries in our room with a congratulatory card from the Gergen-Burkes, which was a very generous surprise, and later headed out for dinner at Herbsaint, which came highly recommended by friend Melissa B. Dan sent her a note telling her we had a reservation for last night, and she replied, “I have three words for you: Get The Gumbo.” And we did, and it was sublime, as was the rest of the meal.

As we sit out on our little patio with coffee this Sunday morning we catch the occasional sounds of the city drifting over us – music from a calliope, horns playing gospel hymns, and it is very peaceful. We are getting ready for more adventures in the city today, including the art museum and Preservation Hall. We are also sending our love and best wishes to Dan’s brother Tom as he sets off today with a group on a transcontinental bike trip…by comparison, our hills were considerably smaller than the mountains he will climb….looking forward to hearing about his adventures from the west to the east coast.

Day Twenty Six: Natchez to Laplace, LA, mostly by U-Haul

So we went out to dinner tonight in a ten foot U-Haul truck.

The restaurant, Frenier Landing, was on Lake Pontchartrain, a couple of miles from the motel where we are staying, next to some swampland, and the night air was humid and heavy. We were amazed by the size of the dragonflies there; they looked like small birds. Dan had gumbo with alligator sausage and I had a delicious crab salad with remoulade, and no one really seemed to look twice at our vehicle as we climbed out of it, though I thought it was sort of hilarious.

We took yesterday off after twelve days of riding. It was Dan’s birthday, and we had a lovely room for two nights at the Dunleith Inn in Natchez. After breakfast we had a tour of the inn and visited some other historic sites and had to do mundane things like laundry, and then had an opportunity to reconsider our 240 mile or so route into New Orleans again, which we have changed several times. While talking this through, it became clear that one of us was ready to be done with biking, and the other was not. So we worked to figure out a compromise.

We decided that leapfrogging ahead through Baton Rouge would get us past the many miles of rural roads without services in rural Mississippi and Louisiana on the route, as well as getting us past some expected storms, and would let us finish our ride into New Orleans along the levee. So when we woke up this morning we immediately started making phone calls. First to the one car rental agency in town, Enterprise, to see if they had a car or SUV that we could rent (answer: no, they had nothing available until Saturday), then to Downtown Carla Brown’s shuttle service (answer: no, she was in Nashville delivering some cyclists doing the Trace but she could take us to Brookhaven to get on an Amtrak on Friday), and then to the Rock and Roll Taxi service (answer: yes, they would take us to Baton Rouge after 4 o’clock but could not take our bikes). So then we started considering other options…and U-Haul seemed pretty attractive. They offer one-way drop off, plus enough space to fit a couple of bikes in the back of their trucks, and there are lots of U-Haul offices in the region. The lovely woman at the Natchez U-Haul, Linda, said they had a truck available and quoted us a price and after breakfast in the Dunleith Castle we loaded up our bikes and rode out to highway 61.

Unfortunately, Linda discovered she was wrong when we got there… there wasn’t a truck that we could take without messing up other people’s plans. She was really apologetic and started making phone calls in between people coming in to pay bills and Fed Ex packages (the other part of the business) to see if she could find another truck for us, and eventually found one about 15 miles west in Ferriday. To get there, we would have to ride across a bridge that was under construction. By this time there was an older guy sitting at the other desk behind the counter (who looked like he could be Joe Biden’s brother), and he kind of quietly suggested that he didn’t think they were letting bikes on the bridge, and said he would check with the U-Haul in Woodville, about 35 miles south on 61. He found they had a 10 foot truck we could rent, so now the trick was to get us there before they closed for the day. And then he very kindly offered to drive us there…turned out Mike was the owner of the business and had a pickup and could take us and our bikes there in between some lawn mowing and other duties. His sidekick was a 15 year old boy who was wide eyed and quiet and watched as we strapped our bikes to Mike’s trailer, then came along for the ride.

It was a very pleasant trip, a beautiful wooded stretch of highway 61 that would have been a challenge on bikes only because there wasn’t much of a shoulder to ride on, and Mike had lots of stories including one about finding a still in those woods when he was a kid, and his dad called the police to let them know, and they smashed it up, and his dad later turned the barrel into a coffee table. The U-Haul office was in a small fitness center next to a Sonic Drive In and we got our gear and bikes out of the truck and profusely thanked Mike, who didn’t want any money for driving us though we persuaded him to at least let us pay for his lunch.

The rest of the day was spent driving down highway 61 in our big old truck, listening to NPR, stopping at the state line, drinking sweet tea under a giant oak tree in St. Francisville, and looking out at a landscape with sugarcane fields and refineries and lots of truck stops and strip malls. We drove through a torrential rainstorm and were sort of glad not to be on our bikes, though I confessed to Dan that missed it, I missed the intimacy with the landscape that is part and parcel of traveling by bike.

Tomorrow we will be riding along the river again…looking forward to it.

Day Twenty Four: Port Gibson to Natchez, MS

I have been reading Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” on this trip, and it has provided a thoughtful perspective on what it is to be traveling through unknown terrain, whether geographical or psychological. She notes:

“Lost is mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all of the metaphorical and metaphysical states of being lost as it does to blundering around the backcountry…. The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”

We have been lost, and uncertain, and uncomfortable, on this trip — even given all of the maps and technology and planning and arrangements — and have experienced discomfort, as well as a rich life of discovery as a result.

This afternoon we finished our ride on the Natchez Trace Parkway, and felt both giddiness and loss as we counted down the mile markers to zero …. it was a tremendous biking experience. For more than 400 miles we were on a nationally maintained, historic roadway and the land adjacent to it. We entered it in the same way we started off on all of the other parts of the trip — with some sense of the towns and sights along it and high hopes for light traffic — but what we did not expect before starting was the quiet that we frequently experienced. Sometimes 15 minutes or more would pass before we would see a car or truck or RV, and in that time we would hear the quiet whir of our bike tires on pavement and the clink of our shifting gears, and the sounds and songs of birds in the woods around us, and maybe a far off tractor or mower, or water dripping off of rocks, or a cow or rooster making itself known.

We spoke with a group of lovely Belgian cyclists last night and at various points today at length as we compared our journeys, and they they too remarked on how amazing this was, the best biking they have experienced, and this in the context of many other cycling trips in Asia and Europe and better known places in the U.S. We did experience dry weather and blue skies most of the time, and that contributed to the overall satisfaction for us all, I think.

Our day started in our antebellum bed and breakfast in Port Gibson, where our young host served us bacon and eggs and berries in a dining room built in the 1700s and talked with us about his decision to buy the house and move there from Minnetonka, MN. The house had fifteen foot ceilings and beautiful details and no nails were used in its construction, only wooden pegs. We walked down his long, hilly gravel driveway after saying goodbye to him and his lively Golden Retrievers, and rode south toward Natchez.

The trip was a short one by comparison to other days though we felt a bit tired and ready for a break, which we experienced as soon as we entered Natchez. It is a beautiful river city, with amazing historic homes and streets lined with flowering trees and bushes, and we are staying at the Dunleith Inn which is quite posh by comparison to most of our accommodations this far. We are in the Dairy Building, and evidently the inn’s more notable guests (Mick Jagger, Viola Davis, Octavia Spenser) have stayed in the main house. Loved having the pool to ourselves before walking back into town to meet our friend Carlos for dinner along the river. He has been great company, a true companion and a lively storyteller, and we look forward to seeing him again in a few days in New Orleans.

The day ended with a ride back to the inn in the town Rock and Roll Taxi, with an older fellow who was playing great music. Dan asked him about Jerry Lee Lewis, who played his first gig down the street from where we had dinner when he was 13, and our driver went on to tell us that he first heard Elvis perform on a hayride, together with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, for $1 some years back.

Looking forward to more adventures in Natchez tomorrow….