It’s nice to know where you’re going to sleep at night. There’s comfort in planning, security in reservations. And yet the adventure of no plan or no clue where your head will lay has its charm. During this bike tour, I’ve felt exposed to the whim of the elements and people we meet and yet completely at ease, plan or no plan. The kindness and generosity of strangers reinforces my faith in humanity, strengthening the feeling that riding without a route will turn out ok.
I dig the unknown and the surprises (good and bad) that accompany serendipity. I’ve always laughed when the weather gets so bad it seems like a joke – horizontal rain, for example – and revel in the edge I discover when things get, well, “interesting.” Missed a turn? No big deal. Planning our trip day-by-day? Sign me up. Lucky for me, I have a partner in Chelsea who both embraces this ethos and also has a healthy sense of self-preservation. She balances my “just do it” attitude, though I frequently battle her like a defiant two-year-old. I know some of you are thinking, “Poor Chelsea,” and you are right…but not all the time. After all, embracing the open road without a plan can result in some of the most satisfying adventures out there. It can be more of a rollercoaster ride of events and emotions, but such is our way. She did get on a plane to Prague for our month-long first date, after all!
This is the story of two serendipitous days in Iowa. They are snapshots, but are representative of our general experience on tour: No plans and nothing to guide us save a convenience store map and the sun on our backs. Since it’s just after Labor Day and we all have work to do, I’m breaking it into two bite-sized stories and will post the other later this week.
Au Revoir Nebraska
Our two rest days in Omaha were perfect. They featured time with good friends (thanks Holman family!), a decadent dinner at a new vegan restaurant called Modern Love and even tracking down old homes that Chelsea’s maternal grandma had lived in to chat with the current owners. We left the city on a sultry and humid August day to head further east. On our way out, we watched a parade south of Omaha, talked to a guy from Florida who almost did somersaults he was so stoked about our trip, ate lunch next to the Missouri River and then crossed it on a narrow bridge. The attendant waved us past the $1 cyclist toll for free, smoke ringlets from her cigarette marking the end of our time in Nebraska.
Onward into Iowa, whose first surprise hit hard right over the bridge: Nothing in the state is flat! (Joe P, I know you could have told me that.) The country roads are a gridded array of steep, long hills (paved and gravel) that cascade across the countryside through corn and soybean fields. In all our time on the road, there have been only four days I would call “flat,” and those of course featured the scourge of cyclists, Headwinds From Hell.
We enjoyed a short stint on a nice, shaded gravel trail called the Wabash Trace, passing four guys doing a weekend bike trip with a boombox blasting classic rock. Unfortunately, the trail ran north-south, as many of the rails-to-trails seem to do. We soon continued east in search of Chelsea’s paternal great-grandparents’ gravestone in tiny Henderson, Iowa. With some help from a nice woman, we tracked down the tree-shaded cemetery a mile out of town, views of fields dropping away from the hill. Chelsea laid fresh-picked flowers on their graves (Victor and Inez Norton) and we sat together on the windy knoll contemplating the past and this winding path of life we’re lucky enough to experience together. To have biked 2,000+ miles to be there was amazing, especially since it wasn’t part of the plan until a few days prior.
Back in tiny Henderson, population 185, Chelsea searches for someone who knows her family. She knocks on the door of a guy who says, “Oh, you need to talk to Ken and Mary,” and points across the street. Tapping on their door, we’re warmly ushered in to chat with the most connected residents in town before we even tell them who we are or what we’re up to. Mary and Ken are a delightful couple who seem to know everyone. Chelsea is quickly on the phone with Wanda, who played as a kid with her great aunt’s kids while living across the street from the family farm where Chelsea’s grandpa grew up. Mary has every phone number memorized and is a master connector, dialing up a couple more people for Chelsea to chat with.
Meanwhile, Ken regales me with a quick wit and shows me his impressive knowledge of ham radios in the Man Cave at the back of the house. He also tells great stories, such as when he worked at Nebraska Furniture Center and Warren Buffett, who owns the store, was checking up on his investment. On his way out, he asked Ken, “Hey, do you have $5 you could spot me for lunch?” The Omaha billionaire didn’t even have the cash to grab a burger across the street!
Then we hop in their car, meeting Wanda along the way, and everyone heads out to the old family farm, surprising a Russian woman who lives there. As they toured the farmhouse, I saw fireflies for the first time in my life on the old homestead as they flickered on and off in the dark, twinkling by the barn as the sun dipped low and glowed red on the horizon.
A visit to Wanda’s house follows and then Ken and Mary invite us to stay the night, where we burned the midnight oil trading stories. Their good cheer and warm hospitality kicked off our stay in Iowa. Another example of embracing the unknown resulting in great friends and memories that will last a lifetime.
Tomorrow, Part 2! We’ll be hitting the shores of Lake Erie, where we’re staying with a buddy I ran Hood to Coast with on Labor Day Weekend four years ago. Full circle connection, as usual.
Ciao for now,
P.S. Happy birthday to Chelsea’s brother Jesse! Thinking of you today and much love from Grand Rapids, Ohio.