Punching Through the Midwest – Bike Touring Video (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of 4 of the video series documenting our 101 day trip cycling across the the U.S. in the summer of 2014. If you missed Part 1, click here to check it out. This section covers from Spearfish, South Dakota all the way to the Indiana border. Straight through the heart of the Midwest in summer like true masochists. 

Corn crop

We didn’t plan to bike through the Midwest in August. It just worked out that way. Our timing, framed around hitting New England during peak fall colors, meant we had to spend some time in the sweltering summer. To echo Vonnegut, so it goes… Trade-offs are part of living.

After clearing Montana, we headed south through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Instead of highways, we spent a few days on the Mickelson Trail, which is a 110-mile gravel trail that cuts right through the heart of the area near Mt. Rushmore. Timing it perfectly (not), we managed to hit the area just as 500,000 motorcycles descended like loud, buzzing bees for the Sturgis Rally. I think I heard, “Put an engine on that thing!” almost as much as “I could never do what you’re doing.”

Foggy morning in Nebraska in the corn fields.

Foggy morning in Nebraska in the corn fields.

I asked a bartender in Cody, NE (pop 154) if they knew anyone who might take us in for the night since a big storm was rolling in. Isla helped us out and her cheery granddaughter made us laugh and laugh.

I asked a bartender in Cody, NE (pop 154) if they knew anyone who might take us in for the night since a big storm was rolling in. Isla helped us out and her cheery granddaughter made us laugh and laugh.

The Midwest gets a bad rap sometimes, and part of it is a bit undeserved. Take Nebraska, for instance. I think most people picture horribly flat, ugly terrain stretching for miles. Flat? On the highways, yes. Country roads were rolling and nice. Ugly? Not in the NW part of the state in the pretty, rolling Sand Hills region. We lucked out and fog was more prevalent than crushing sun for the first half of Nebraska. Clear, hot skies came as we neared Omaha, as did gnarly traffic. My advice is to avoid big cities whenever possible if you go touring because navigating them on bicycle is often difficult or just plain nerve-wracking.

Iowa’s surprise was constant rolling steep hills, not flat corn country. We toiled up them through temperatures soaring into the high 90’s in humidity so thick we could have backstroked in it. Locals were kind, generous and excited to talk to us. A new idea (to us) was Casey’s, a gas station chain also featuring pizza ovens. We ate no-cheese, veggie pizza ($12.74 with tax) and scored ice cubes for our water bottles frequently to survive. That convenience was unfortunately offset by the stink of factory farms and the doomed animals inside them that permeated the air in many stretches of the state. An up-close, visceral look at the underbelly of our food system.

Up close and personal with a soy bean field.

Up close and personal with a soy bean field.

In eastern Iowa, road shoulders were 10 feet wide to accommodate the large Amish population and their buggies, which whisk along behind quickly trotting horses. We stopped at Stringtown Grocery, an Amish establishment featuring re-bagged bulk goods branded under the store’s name. And then we hit a big milestone – The Mississippi River! I stared at the flat brown flowing waters and thought of the Louisiana Purchase. To think that a huge chunk of land west of this grand body of water at one point wasn’t even part of the United States before France sold it to us. 2,300 miles on our bikes to get here and we were barely half way to Maine.

Scenery past the Mississippi was the cliche Midwest fare. Rather non-descript days pedaling through the corn and soy fields of Illinois blend together into podcasts and audiobooks that curbed the monotony a bit. Long days in the sun melded into one big mass of states starting with I as we left Iowa for Illinois and Indiana.

Corn fields and a rusty silo to hold the bounty.

Corn fields and a rusty silo to hold the bounty.

Our ability to forget difficult trials is powerful. This portion of our tour is scarcely three months ago and yet feels so long ago. The events of August in the Midwest are already softer in my mind. Memories of days where we had to linger in a gas station to let our internal temperatures cool down are slipping away. The sun’s fangs are blunted and the sauna of the humidity diminishes. Even the sameness of the landscape – corn, soy, repeat – looks better in the pictures.

What remains etched in stone is a mental confidence that we persevered as a team, pushing through conditions we normally would choose to avoid at all costs. The crucible of the Midwest forged our relationship into a stronger bond. For that reason alone, this tough section of the tour was worth it.

Enough chit chat. How about that video?! Email subscribers: click here for Part 2 of 4. Visitors to the website, just click play below in the embedded video. Enjoy…and see you shortly in Part 3!




No, Seriously, Where Are We Staying Tonight? A Day in Iowa, Part 2

Howdy! This is the second of two posts with some day-to-day detail. If you missed the first, maybe go check it out, though this can stand alone. I don’t write much about our daily life on the bikes, but wanted to in order to give a taste of our experience. Also, for all you new readers to the blog wondering how in tarnation we do this (we wonder too some days), I recommend the post on trip logistics and why we’re doing this tour.

Backroads of Nebraska.

Back country roads of the Midwest.

It’s hard to leave wonderful people we meet and stay with along the way. I always feels like yelling, “no, waaaaaait” as we’re pulled off into the distance. Places to go before it snows keeps our pedals spinning, so the next morning we departed from Mary and Ken’s home. The day soon found us pedaling off (and up) some of the steepest hills Not-Flat-Iowa could throw at us on another scorcher day.

Absorbed in an audiobook, I biked waaaay ahead and Chelsea took an inadvertent turn. I always wait at intersections, but this time (a trip first!) it didn’t work out. I should probably mention that we didn’t know which town we were heading to that day since we were just going to follow pavement and avoid gravel until we were somewhere worth stopping. Which means Chelsea, when she was five miles off route, couldn’t answer a nice local cyclist when he asked where she was headed. (Maine is a vague answer when you’re in Iowa.) Did I mention we didn’t have cell phone reception?

WHATever. We figured it out, even if we lost a couple hours and added mileage to our day. Erick, the cyclist, drove around for an hour on country roads making sure we found one another. (Thanks man!) A perfect example of the giant heart and generosity of every single person we met in Iowa, not to mention throughout the Midwest. At least the adults are – three teenagers later that day stared at us like we were hippos on skateboards when we asked them where we could refill our water bottles in their tiny town. Hooligans…

Early morning with 50 giant emoticons on a farmer's fence cheering us on.

Early morning with 50 giant emoticons on a farmer’s fence cheering us on.

This long day on the bikes turned to dusk with our muses the fireflies blinking in the descending darkness. We had a couple choices. Two miles (that we’d backtrack the next morning) on a rutted gravel road to a showerless campground OR pushing on through in the dark to the next small town an hour distant. We opted to continue on the pavement toward Greenfield, Iowa, just south of Des Moines, blinking red taillights alerting approaching drivers. This may sound terrible, yet it was a magical evening and our first time riding in the pitch dark. A nice breeze, sparse traffic and the fireflies popping up around us in the quiet night turned this into an almost meditative experience. Yep, even 65 miles in and exhausted from literally more elevation in one day than we rode coming over the pass in Glacier! (Again, Iowa is not flat. I’m permanently scarred.) Sometimes i’s the unexpected that forms the strongest memories of a trip and this was no exception.

Wind turbines spin on the horizon at dusk headed toward Greenfield. Hundreds upon hundreds of these are scattered across the Midwest.

Wind turbines spin on the horizon as night falls as we head toward Greenfield. Hundreds upon hundreds of these are scattered across the Midwest.

Arriving in Greenfield after 9 pm and finally getting a cell signal, I called the lone hotel in town.  Sunday night in a small town, noooo problem…except for the tour bus (in Iowa?!) that just booked the entire hotel. OH NO. Practically begging, I pleaded with the hotel clerk to help us out. “Well, we do have the opera house next door that we have a deal with for times like this…” I pictured a dusty janitor’s closet but took her up on checking it out. Nope! We scored and wound up in a historic opera house replete with a three room suite and the balcony above the stage just outside our door. PLUS a turret in our bedroom overlooking the courthouse in the city square. One of the coolest places we’ve stayed (this trip or others) and another serendipitous experience. It sure beat pitching a tent in the city park.

The historic Greenfield Opera house. I'm in the turret at top left.

The historic Greenfield Opera house. I’m in the turret at top left. I hauled our bikes up the steep stairs  in the bottom right.

Corn and hay, hay and corn...

Corn and hay, hay and corn…

We need to let it all hang out there sometimes to experience our edge. It doesn’t always work out, and it’s best to be prepared with all the gear and skills to survive, yet the edge of our comfort zone is where the magic happens. In its own way, everything will work out. I’ve had more thrilling or adventurous days traveling with Chelsea and we’ve certainly experienced more scenic landscapes. That wasn’t the important part of this day. By leaning headlong into the fray, however tame by some standards, we further reinforced our trust in one another and solidified our confidence in humanity and whatever force is out there watching out for us.

Someday, I’ll think back to these two evenings in Iowa and the words from a Mason Jennings song will ring out in my head: “The past is beautiful, like the darkness between the fireflies. Beautiful like the darkness between the fireflies.” I’ll close my eyes and be there next to Chelsea on the old family farm in the middle of nowhere or humming along on bikes in the inky stillness with our firefly and cicada cheerleaders whooping it up. And I’ll smile and know we reaped serendipity’s reward those days in the rolling hills of Iowa.

Here’s to discovering  your edge, wherever and whatever it might be, and pushing past it every so often.


A great hotel in the middle of nowhere! The Hotel Greenfield is definitely worth a stay.

A great hotel in the middle of nowhere! The Hotel Greenfield is definitely worth a stay. Here we are well rested, stuffed from the great hotel breakfast and ready for another day of battle.

Our favorite rest break: eating cold watermelon in the shade.

Our favorite rest break: eating cold watermelon in the shade. Did you know it helps to relieve sore muscles, according to Dr. Michael Gregor from Refreshing AND helpful!

Until next time, off we pedal.

Until next time, off we pedal.

Chugging Across the Midwest

Rows of GMO corn in the lovely rolling hills of Nebraska.

Rows of GMO corn in the lovely rolling hills of Nebraska.

We crossed the Mississippi! 2,500 miles into this journey already. It’s flying by, albeit ever-so-slowly some days. Every mile still takes effort; each hill is a challenge. Today is Day 62, exactly two months into our bike tour. And where the heck, you ask, are we? Northern Indiana! In the last few weeks, we’ve plowed through Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, putting the leg power to the cranks and making some great time. Snow in New England waits for no bike tourist, as the experts say, and so we pedal on.

There was little time to write in the last couple weeks – just too many adventures, people to meet and renting our house to take care of. Which is why this is a short “we’re still alive” post with a few pictures. I’ll get a longer one posted after Labor Day, which will find us well into Ohio and on the shores of Lake Erie.

Chelsea flanked by corn on either side on a country road somewhere in central Illinois.

Chelsea flanked by corn on either side on a country road somewhere in central Illinois.

Thanks to all of you for the quick texts, emails and comments on the blog with notes of encouragement or just to say hi. We so appreciate it. Just so you know, I’m taking a hiatus from social media (all apps deleted from my phone) to stay more present, which means the little tidbits and pictures of our trip will not all be relayed. It was a hard call, but one I think is important for me. I’ll still put each blog post up on Facebook since a lot of people follow it that way.

On the banks of the mighty Mississippi!

On the banks of the mighty Mississippi at the Iowa-Illinois border!

Why shut off Facebook and Instagram? They were starting to feel like noise, a pull away from the present and an expectation (of myself) to deliver fun and interesting content. As much as I want to share every funny and beautiful moment from the trip, sharing was distracting. The blog is a ton of energy by itself in the midst of this journey and social media was taking away from the experience of traveling. I’ve taken breaks before (a month off in January earlier this year) and loved it. This stems from that, but the feeling deepened two weeks into a personal challenge to meditate every morning in August.

With that, I bid you adieu! Tomorrow we cross into Eastern Standard Time. We’ve mapped out a timeline for our trip and expect to reach the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Maine by early October through some gorgeous, fall-colored countryside. New England, here we come! Have a lovely Labor Day y’all.


Chelsea rides through a field of soy in Illinois.

Chelsea rides through fields of soybeans in Illinois. A 70 mile day in 95 degrees and 90% humidity…woo! We won’t miss the humidity, that’s for sure.