Jon and I took a longer trip this summer, a trip that started out shorter and in a different part of the country. By the time the planning (or the lack of planning) was done, we were on our way to St. Louis, with the intention of spending the better part of two weeks riding up the Mississippi to Wisconsin, then cutting across to Milwaukee (where Jon lives).
My original plan was to load my Bike Friday into its suitcase and take the train to St. Louis. Jon would have needed to load his LHT into a bike box and check it as luggage . . . except Amtrak doesn't check luggage from Chicago to St. Louis. (Can that be true? It seems impossible . . . what an idiotic lack of service. There's no way to get a bike to St. Louis by Amtrak. This is, alas, typical. Amtrak is not interested in bike riders.)
The solution was to have Jon's incredibly generous wife drive us from Milwaukee to St. Louis (400 miles). We drove down on Saturday, she threw us and our gear out of the car, and then she turned around and headed home the same day. Yikes. She must have been really eager to be rid of Jon for a few weeks.
Our plan was to follow Adventure Cycling route guides as much as possible. I had used their route guides in a half-hearted way before, frequently jumping off the route if it seemed to be taking a longer route than I wanted, but I had never religiously followed a route guide for any distance. So this was to be an experiment.
The advantage of a route guide is that the route is picked for you. No advance planning is necessary. No county maps, no researching camp grounds, just the route guide (and a large state map for reference). We would follow the first few panels of the Lewis and Clark route from Hartford, IL to Marthasville, MO (on the Katy Trail), turn north and follow the Great Rivers South route to Muscatine, IA, and the Northern Tier segment from Muscatine to west of Dubuque, where we would turn eastward.
That was the plan. The reality was a bit different.
As usual, we camped in public and private campgrounds, with two motel nights thrown in where convenient camping couldn't be found. All but one of the campgrounds had showers, which is always nice. In total we stayed in six state or county parks, two motels, two private campgrounds, and one in-laws house.
On previous trips, we have considered days of 65 miles or so to be optimal. As a result, we frequently had 70- and even 80- or 90-mile days, with relatively few days under 60 miles. For this trip, we decided to set the standard distance at 50 miles, meaning that distances of 50-60 would be most common, 60-70 would be less common, above 70 would be only in an emergency. Furthermore, it meant that sub-50-mile days were possible, if we had to choose between that and going 70-plus miles.
We mostly stuck to that standard. We only had one day over 70 miles (with a stiff tailwind and no hills), and only two days over 60. And we did, indeed, have one day under 50 miles, something we never would have allowed in our younger, more pain-tolerant days. All the other days were in the 50-60 mile range. Since we always started out by 7:30 am, this meant we were usually done by early- to mid-afternoon.
The obligatory gear details:
|My rig. Rear panniers have rain covers in this photo.|
As I was getting ready for the trip, I noticed that my fancy Velocity Synergy rear wheel was tearing itself apart, with the rim cracking in many places, and spokes pulling out. (See my post here.) I was grateful that I noticed it before we left, but it posed a dilemma: Take the clown bike (that is, the Bike Friday) which is not as good on trails (it rolls noticeably slower), or build a new wheel. I decided to try the latter. I ordered up a touring rim from Velo Orange. The old spokes were a few mm short, but they might work. Bad idea, I know, reusing spokes, particularly on a fully loaded touring wheel, but I didn't have time to get new ones.
So I laced up the wheel, trued it, dished it, stressed it, and crossed my fingers (not 3-cross). I had a week to try it out. In the 100 miles I rode that week, it seemed to be holding. The test would be when I loaded it up. (I had also built the front wheel using a Novatech dynamo hub and an old rim I had lying around, but I wasn't worried about it, since it was already two years old and had never had a problem. Besides, front wheels don't work as hard as rear wheels, nor do they have the asymmetrical stresses caused by dishing.)
|Bikes and gear before loading.|
We would be following the Adventure Cycling Lewis and Clark route these first two days, along the river north to the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers before crossing into Missouri and following the Katy Trail.
|The first flat tire of the trip|
Although he had three flat tires in three days, making us worry that it would be a daily annoyance for the whole trip, they did eventually stop. Flat tires are demoralizing. Not particularly problematic or time-consuming, but demoralizing. Jon's second flat tire happened just as we were starting on the second day, and his third flat tire happened at the top of a huge hill on the third day. There's never a good time for a flat, but both of those were particularly bad times.
The first night we camped in Pere Marquette State Park, which is, technically, on the Illinois River. As with most state parks, this one was quite pleasant and had showers, our big requirement. We had eaten dinner at an ice cream stand in Grafton, so the lack of grocery and restaurant didn't bother us. In general, that was our model: We looked ahead to where we'd be stopping, found the last place prior to our destination that had restaurants or groceries, and stocked up or ate there. Some nights, that meant actually buying dinner. Other nights, we bought canned beans (or their equivalent) to cook on our little alcohol stoves. Even canned beans taste good at the end of a day of riding. There's no point in trying to cook an actual meal starting with fresh wholesome ingredients. It's a giant hassle, the ingredients often cost more than a restaurant would, we can't really buy perishables if we are going to carry them any distance, our catfood can alchohol stoves aren't good for much more than boiling water and warming beans, and there's usually something left over at the end of the meal, which must be thrown out. So canned beans and ramen noodles for us. In the mornings, I always boiled water for instant "coffee," and we often had instant oatmeal if it looked like there would be nothing close for breakfast.
|The free ferry across the Illinois River|
In St. Charles we got a bit lost, thanks to not reading the route guide very carefully. These route guides are very good, very detailed, and (mostly) very right. They contain all the information one needs to find one's way, but you need to pay careful attention. On normal maps, you can "sort of" read them and fill in the gaps and get where you're going. On the route guides, you must notice every mark, every road, every street name. We didn't, so we went astray. Rather than roaming aimlessly around St. Charles, we retraced our steps several miles (very discouraging) and tried again. The second time worked, and it took us through a lovely commercial district that had a Walgreen's, where I got a battery for my odometer (very important when using the route guides).
|The Katy Trail, west of St. Charles|
Until this point, I hadn't had a copy of the route guide (Lewis and Clark, section 1). It wasn't a big deal, but it made me feel a tad disoriented, not knowing exactly where we were headed. The beauty of the route guides is that both riders always have exactly the same information; one can say to the other, "The guide says we turn in 3.7 miles," meaning, We don't need to think for the next 3.7 miles. Or argue, as the case may be. (Not that we argue that much about routes, but having the route guide as ultimate authority pretty much eliminates disagreement.) I tend to be bossy about routes, and the route guide helps prevent that. Instead of unilaterally announcing, "We're going THIS way!" I can announce, "The route guide says we go THIS way!" There's no arguing with that. Once we hit the Katy trail, we entered the Great Rivers route guide, which we both had.
We camped our second night at Klondike County Park, just short of Augusta. It was a lovely, brand new little park. The shower building even had a camp kitchen in it. We were told that it was completely full the night before (Saturday). On this Sunday night, however, it was mostly empty. Because we hadn't read the route guide carefully, we rode past this campground on our way to Augusta (where we had indifferent burgers and brats in an odd outdoor beer grotto restaurant), which left us the unpleasant prospect of retracing our steps yet again. For such a nice little campground, it was worth it. It was either that or forge ahead to Marthasville and Choo Choo's Custard and Camping . . . sorely tempting, but it was still 12 miles, and who knew if it was open or what it would be like.
|Klondike County Park|
|Abandoned farmhouse on County O|
This was an interesting segment of the route. First, after Wright City we were put on a dirt road; this, even though Adventure Cycling brags about how well they avoid dirt roads. I sort of like dirt roads (usually they're peaceful and, as long as they aren't covered with loose gravel or sand, or washboards, they're usually very rideable), so this routing didn't bother me. The route guide explained that the traffic is so bad on the paved alternative, that the dirt is worth it. I agree. I liked it.
But one choice that the route guide made on this segment was, flat-out, a catastrophe. After Troy, the route follows state highway 47 for 3.5 miles. The first three miles had a good shoulder, so despite the heavy traffic it was fine. But the last half-mile was a nightmare. The worst segment on the route. We had the bad fortune to hit it at rush hour (I guess, at least as much as Troy gets), and it was a steady stream of pick-up trucks driving very fast. The road had absolutely no shoulder--just a drop-off to a soft shoulder, and the traffic was steady in both directions, so we couldn't count on traffic being able to swing wide around us. I ended up riding on the soft shoulder, which quickly grew old. A half mile is a long way when you're doing that kind of riding on a loaded bike.
It was a great relief to get off the state highway when we entered Cuivre River State Park. The route guide was a little unclear where the campground was . . . at least, at the time it seemed unclear: once we found it, the directions made sense. But because we were entering through the unofficial back entrance to the campground, there were no signs. It was later explained to us that this back entrance was instead of the very hilly front entrance, which made me stop complaining. (And the back entrance came after some not insignificant hills. After the terrible Route 47 trauma, we weren't in the mood for any more hills than we got.)
|Cuivre River State Park, MO|
Day 4 was much like Day 3. Beautiful rolling countryside, lightly traveled roads, lots of horse farms. The hills got bigger as we approached Clarksville and the river, which we hadn't seen since before St. Charles. If we hadn't followed the route guide and the Katy Trail, we would have reached Clarksville on the second or third day. Worth the detour? We weren't in a hurry and the riding was lovely (if a bit hilly), so yes, it was worth the detour, I guess. Had we taken the direct route, we would have avoided hills, but we also might have found ourselves on Route 47 for 10 miles. That would have been alarming.
|The view from Henderson Riverfront Park, where we weren't allowed to camp.|
|River's Edge Motel, Louisiana, MO|
But staying in a motel once a week or so is just a nice thing to do. Nothing to be ashamed of. Now ordering that huge pizza . . .
The next day held the promise of hills. We had been warned by several people that the stretch from Louisiana to Hannibal was hilly, so we were apprehensive. But the first 15 miles were absolutely perfect riding, mostly through a river valley, lovely hills on both sides. Easy. We took a break at the foot of the first hill, hoping that perhaps it was the only hill. It wasn't. These were significant hills, one after another, all the way to Hannibal. Not as big as the hill coming out of the Missouri River valley, but big and numerous. Each one had a lovely scenic turnout looking out over the sweep of the Mississippi and into Illinois. We would have happily done with less scenery and more flat, but we tried to enjoy each view as it came along.
|A scenic pullout south of Hannibal|
The route guide said that we need to ride on the freeway to cross the river back into Illinois. This was unusual, but I trusted that it was correct. I was completely reassured when I saw the bike route signs pointing up the on-ramp. We crossed over from the hilly western shore to the flat flat flat eastern shore. We saw few hills from this point until northern Illinois, five days later. I like hills, and I don't mind slogging through them, but I also like total flatness, particularly when there's a bit of a tail wind.
|Crossing back into IL on the freeway|
Unlike a KOA, there was no camp store where we could buy Beef-A-Roni for our dinner, so we biked back to town and had a very mediocre meal at a biker bar. It was $1 long-neck night, so I had a few. "We have all domestic beers," the waitress said proudly. "How about Miller?" I asked. "Nope." How about Coors?" "Nope." "What do you have?" "Bud Light." "How about regular Bud?" "We have that, too!" That's what I had. Jon and I had fried fish; they looked like catcher's mitts with a little hamburger bun stock in with a toothpick to add class. Not our best meal, but anything tastes good after a hot day of riding through hills.
|Houses on stilts along the river north of Quincy|
Nauvoo State Park was one of the more unusual campgrounds I have ever stayed in. It didn't seem to have sites, at least not the tent area. Just a tree-covered hillside sprinkled with picnic tables. We had heard from other bikers that there were no rangers to collect camping fees (which only came to $8, I think), and that proved to be true. Very nice new bathhouse, pleasant enough park. But odd. We set up on the empty hillside, cooked our canned beans and ramen noodles, took showers, went to bed at 10:00, as usual. We had this corner of the campground to ourselves.
|Our "site" in Nauvoo State Park|
My first guess, upon seeing the bus, was that these weref 21st-century hippies. But when everyone started stirring, it was clear that this was wrong. The truth of who and what these people probably were was a bit creepy. Jon, of course, went over and tried to strike up a conversation, but didn't have a lot of success. They weren't very chatty.
This was to be our day of decisions. To follow the route guides and cross over into Iowa and leave the river? Or to stay in Illinois and continue along the eastern shore? (It sounds like we were deciding between going to Minas Tirith or going to Mordor.) The Illinois route had a lot going for it, except for the small detail of getting through the Quad Cities, which really looked sprawling and impossible to go around in a reasonable fashion.
|River bottom land in Illinois|
We turned right. For two miles, we wished we hadn't. The east-west roads, particularly the major US highways, are busy. Very busy. Loaded with trucks going between Illinois and Iowa using the few bridges across the river. And narrow. No shoulder. We hurried, we ignored the horns, we tried not to get squashed flat, and we breathed a sigh of relief when we could turn left and leave US-34 behind. We had made our choice. It would be smooth sailing until the Quad Cities. But then what? I figured there had to be a way to get through. It would be on a Sunday morning. If we went early enough, we could probably use major streets.
|Dallas City, IL|
So we worked our way up the small grey and black roads to Oquawka (who knew there was such a town? Says Wikipedia: "Within the city exists a memorial and grave marker to a circus elephant named Norma Jean, who perished on July 17, 1972 after being struck by lightning. The pachyderm was attached to a small circus that performed in the city. Norma Jean was buried on the spot, and the circus, without its star attraction, closed within a year."). Anyway, in Oquawka we bought beans and ramen to take out to Delabar State Park, just north of town.
|The route into Warsaw, IL|
Thanks to Mrs. TomTom, we knew that there was a KOA just south of Rock Island, which would position us nicely for the Quad Cities on Sunday morning. We followed gray roads north and east, encountering a few rolling hills and a smidge of dirt road, but otherwise the riding was OK. Hot, but OK. The KOA was a KOA, which is good and bad. Good because it had really nice showers, laundry, air-conditioned main building, and pool (which I gratefully sank into). Bad because the sites are packed in cheek to jowl, with rocks on the camp drive which make lots of noise as people come and go at all hours. Still, it was fine. We rode into the commercial district and had an awful dinner at KFC. We rode right past a little diner to get there. I'm ashamed, because Jon saw it, but I was so far ahead that he couldn't get my attention. So awful overpriced KFC was our fare.
|Great River Trail in Rock Island, IL|
The riding was easy and nice. The paved trail was delightful (stretching all the way though Rock Island and Moline, and extending quite a few miles north of Moline), and the segments on the roads were clearly marked with relatively little traffic. This was the most we had ridden along the Mississippi during the trip. We followed the river quite closely most of this day, dipping inland occasionally, but always returning to the river. By Savanna, we were tired and ready for dinner, which we ate at Shivers Ice Cream Shoppe.
Palisades State Park was north of town, with the campground nestled into a break in the rocky bluffs (the palisades). When we rolled in, the ranger at the entrance station said, "You must be the last ones!" To which we said, "Huh?" It seems that there was an organized bike tour staying in the campground that night, put on by the League of Illinois Bicyclists. Because it was their first night, they didn't know each other (or us), so they figured we were with them. (There were more than a hundred of them, I think.) We could have marched in to the food tent and helped ourselves to dinner.
We chose a site that was fairly far away from the tour group. They gave us many glances askance as they passed on the way to the bath house, but no one stopped by to say hello. Our theory is that they thought we were renegade members of their group, wanting our privacy (since they didn't know each other yet, they didn't know us, either). In the morning, once they figured out that we weren't with them, there was a steady stream of people stopping by. I don't think we were strutting around as the self-contained bike touring experts, the middle-aged supermen riding from the St. Louis to Milwaukee, since, let's face, it's not that big an accomplishment, but we were happy to chat and learn about their tour and tell them about ours. (Ours seemed more fun. I have never been attracted to big group biking events.)
We had our first (and only) rain of the trip that morning. An hour or so before I usually got up, the heavens opened and dumped for an hour, complete with lightning and thunder. My tent didn't drip, thanks to the seam sealing I had done on the rain fly, but the floor did leak. (The fact that we were camped in a low spot that became a big puddle certainly didn't help.) All the water pooled at my feet, under my air mattress, so nothing important got wet. And, since this was likely to be our last night of camping, even a wet sleeping bag wouldn't have been a big problem. Still, it's aggravating to have a tent leak. (This was an inferior tent in that way. There were big seams across the floor, and along the edges, instead of a wrap-around "bathtub" floor. When I returned home, I emptied several tubes of seam sealer on the floor seams.)
Our goal this day, number 10, was Monroe, WI, 57 miles away, within the acceptable daily distance. We had been spoiled by flat river bottom and strong tailwinds. We knew that would change when we turned inland. We were leaving the Mississippi at Savanna rather than continuing up to Dubuque because we wanted to avoid Lafayette County in Wisconsin, which is notorious for serious hills. We knew we'd hit some hills as we angled up to Monroe, but we hoped to miss the worst of them.
We got off to a bad start. Jon blames me. I blame Mrs. Tomtom, who found us the road leading out of the Mississippi valley that turned out to be dirt. I don't mind dirt, and I didn't mind most of this road. (Jon minded all of it MUCH more than I did.) But when it turned more or less straight up, even I got a bit grumpy. In fact, I walked my bike up the worst of it, which is quite unlike me.
This was a bad start to the day. Jon was more than grumpy. But you know, I had no way of knowing this was a dirt road. I thought it was one of the grey roads on the state map, which are never dirt. (It wasn't the grey road on the map, as it turns out; that one started south of the campground, as I would have figured out if I had looked more carefully.) Mrs. Tomtom doesn't distinguish between dirt and paved roads. It just looked like a nifty way to get over the "palisades."
|Northeast IL, near Stockton|
When we got to Wisconsin, we hit the Badger State Trail, one of the state's numerous rail-trail conversions. It would take us the last seven miles into Monroe. As usual, I had a love-hate thing going with this packed stone-dust trail: I loved its flatness and absence of traffic. I hated its slowness and lack of interesting things to see. The tentative plan was to follow this trail all the way to Madison, after Monroe, but this would put us an awkward distance for the last two days: 70 miles or so from Madison to Jon's house, with no good campgrounds on the route. The logical place to state was at my in-laws lake house in Lake Mills, but it would be a push.
Because there were no campgrounds near our route within striking distance, we decided to stay in a motel. (Two motels on a nearly two-week trip isn't too bad for a couple of old farts.) Monroe had a very nice Super 8 (my wife is skeptical: a "very nice Super 8"? Seems unlikely. But it WAS very nice. I'd stay there, or in another Super 8, again.) I had the pool and whirlpool to myself. And this one had the added advantage of being close to franchise restaurant paradise. So we had dinner at Culver's and late dinner at McDonald's.
And then it was decision time again: Take a short day on the trail to Madison, followed by a very short day to Lake Mills, setting up the final day of 57 miles or so? Or do a medium day to Lake Mills, skipping Madison and cutting out a day? We opted for the latter. We'd be following the very very good Wisconsin state bicycle map, so figuring the best route was easy. We took the trail for about 20 miles (which included a fantastic DARK tunnel that required lights!), and then turned east on pretty (rolling) county roads. Lunch in Stoughton in our favorite kind of little local restaurant. We ended the day on the Glacial Drumlin Trail (which I have ridden many times). We were given a hero's welcome by my father-in-law, Phil. Dinner in town. (Phil bragged about us to the waitress; we just said Aw shucks twarn't nuthin, which is mostly true.)
|Jon emerging from the tunnel on the Badger State Trail|
1. Although the daily mileage was shorter than I would have done by myself, it was pleasant not to be totally exhausted at the end of the day. When I go 70 miles, the last 10-15 miles of the day are usually pretty hard. Lopping those miles off makes a big difference.
2. It's worth carrying cooking gear, but it's not worth trying to do real cooking. Heating up beans and ramen noodles was fine. Boiling water for instant coffee in the morning was also fine. Making a souffle would have been less fine. And on a bike, buying and carrying excessively heavy canned goods for one meal is OK for a few miles. I don't feel the need to carry freeze-dried beef stroganoff, as if I were backpacking, nor would I want to fill up my bags with freeze-dried food for more than a meal or two, even if it weren't so expensive.
3. Route guides are nice, but they change the nature of the experience. They make it possible to travel through a region without really knowing where you are, because you never look at a big, normally oriented map. All you see are the skinny slices of the route, twisted every which way to make them fit on the page. It's not hard to get used to reading them, even with north sometimes pointing downward to the left, but it does change the way you picture the geography of the place. For those of us who love maps, this does make a difference.
The two panels below, from the Great Rivers South guide, illustrate what I mean. To read the top panel, it is necessary to notice that north points down and left. (At least I find it necessary to know that.) So the northbound route is, on this map, going mostly east in the top panel (even though it's pointing up). On the bottom panel, north is now to the left and slightly upward, and the route now goes primarily north. Notice that the maps contain mileages between dots, and stars where the written instructions contain an event (also marked with a star). So you can track your miles by the numbers on the map, or by the relative distance between the stars. It is mostly possible to do without the written instructions; the map is detailed enough. But once I got used to the written instructions, I found myself following them quite obsessively. I was constantly subtracting the mileages in the the instructions from each other, in order to figure out how far to the next event.
After a while, the thought of riding without a route guide is scary, since the guide feeds you every turn, every road name, every distance. (Notice my mark on the lower panel showing a mistaken location for Marcelline. These maps had very very few such mistakes.
4. Once we left the route guide, it worked very well to use a plain state map (I had both the official Illinois state highway map and another that I bought in a gas station) and a GPS unit for reference. I was worried that not having county maps in Illinois would be a problem, but it really wasn't. Staying on the gray (mostly county) highways shown on the state map worked fine.
Although I could get a converter that would allow me to connect the TomTom to my generator hub so that the GPS was on all the time, I don't think I'd like it. Or would I? Hm.
5. My saddle sore problem (as if anyone wanted to hear about that) was not an issue thanks to (a) a "memory foam" saddle cover on my B. 17 saddle, and (b) my J&G loose biking shorts with the fleece liner. Enough said. I was grateful.
And the next tour? Good question. Taking two weeks is disruptive to the family schedule. I think in the future I'll need to limit it to no more than a week. Perhaps I'll start the cross-country-one-week-at-a-time trip next summer. In the meantime, sub-24-hour overnighters will be the bike "tours" of choice.