Days 37 & 38: White River to Freeman

On Wednesday, September 17 we left the West and entered the Midwest. I had always wanted to see this transition. It began on Tuesday, when we crossed from the Mountain time zone into Central time. Today we passed the 100th Meridian, the longitudinal line west of which, I had always heard, you cannot grow field crops without irrigation. In reality, this rain line isn’t always exactly on the Meridian. In Nebraska it’s reliably to the west, and in wet years you might get a good corn crop in White River, South Dakota. But I did see the transition today.

We left the free city campsite in White River around 9am. The first thing I noticed was more water, and more animals. There were ponds in the pastures that had been dry before. There was also a lot more birdsong in the early morning; meadowlarks, robins, and other creatures that hadn’t started flying south yet were singing their heads off and making a beautiful racket. We would startle pheasants in the tall grass on the roadside and they’d explode into the sky. This delighted Jim, who pointed his finger at them and yelled “BANG!” Grasshoppers also covered the roadbed. They jumped as we approached, frequently bouncing off our spokes and shins. The landscape was also flatter, with less rising and falling and more straight roads extending to the horizon.

Insurance companies created the rule of the 100th Meridian. They would not write crop insurance policies for farms west of it, which meant that agriculture was much riskier in the west and the land much more likely to be used for grazing. I didn’t see any field crops before today, but as the morning heated up I saw fields of milo, corn, sunflowers, and hay. The balers and combines got bigger. Jim saw the first “no trespassing” sign he had seen in quite a while.

The wind kicked up as the day got warmer. It was a 10 mph crosswind, which is not as good as a tailwind or no wind, but is better than a headwind. A crosswind wears at you with constant noise and grit. The sun and heat added to it. We reached the actual 100th Meridian at route 381, and turned south, riding directly into the wind. That wasn’t good. At the far end of the turn I got a flat tire. Panting and hot, we dragged ourselves into Winner, where Sara joined us for a proper lunch break (sandwiches and milk shakes). We had done 50 miles, and it was 3pm. We had 40 more miles before the campsite.

Another mark of the Midwest is the beginning of platting. On maps you can see that township boundaries west of the Meridian follow river beds, ridges, and who knows what else. East of it everything is carved into neat one-mile squares. Roads run between each of these squares, and many of them have numbered road signs. Out in the middle of a cornfield with no one around, you’ll be at the intersection of 300th Avenue and 271st Street. How long would you have to wait for a bus to come to that corner? And where is Main Street?

Our water bottles were running low at the intersection of state routes 44 and 47. Eleven miles south of that intersection was the town of Gregory, which sounded cool. “With a varied population, comprising a mixed Indian, ranching, and farming group, Gregory has the distinction of being a melting pot for different kinds of people,” says the South Dakota WPA Guide. “Western flavor is mixed with modern, eastern customs. The frontier spirit of the West still dominates, and the people are noted for their liberal tendencies. When they have money, they are willing to spend it; when hard times come, they accept their plight without murmuring.”

Gregory was also the boyhood home of Oscar Micheaux, a writer who is usually cited as the first African-American filmmaker. As a young man in the 1900s, Micheaux successfully homesteaded a farm in Gregory and began writing stories. To get them published, he formed his own publishing company and sold books door-to-door. In 1919 he wrote, directed and produced the silent motion picture “The Homesteader, “starring the pioneering African American actress Evelyn Preer and based on his novel. Micheaux wrote, produced and directed 44 feature-length films between 1919 and 1948. He also wrote seven novels, one of which was a national bestseller. But we didn’t have time to see Gregory. We needed water.

Luckily for us, Ray’s Northstar Saloon was open at the corner. Ray’s was cool and dark, and Ray was friendly. We drank sodas at the bar. “What’s the big bottle for?”, asked Jim.

“It’s a collection for a local woman who wants to go see her grandkids in Egypt,” said Ray.

Jim took out the dollar bill he’d plucked off the road the day before. “This is my lucky dollar,” he said, and he put it in the bottle. Immediately a yellow Labrador Retriever got up off the floor of the bar and put her head in Jim’s lap, looking at him with big brown eyes.

“Olga the Wonder Dog is working you,” said Ray. “Whenever she sees someone get out a bill, she comes over. Give her a dollar and see what happens.”

Jim put another dollar in Olga’s mouth. The dog trotted around the far end of the bar and gave the bill to Ray, who reached up, got a stick of beef jerky out of a jar, and gave it to Olga. “We sell a lot of beef jerky that way,” he said. It was clear to all that karmic balance had been restored.

There was one more sign today that we were leaving the West. We struggled as five o-clock turned into six o’clock to reach our campsite, which was on the west bank of the Missouri River. The last ten miles were beautiful but hilly, as we rode through valleys the Missouri had carved during ice-age floods the likes of which we couldn’t imagine. “We’re like pioneers in reverse,” said Sara. “They knew they were making progress when they crossed the Missouri because they were finally getting to the West. We know it because we’re crossing it headed east.”

We stopped at a spectacular, secluded campsite three miles down a gravel road. It had an expansive view of a completely undeveloped riverbank on the east side, and as night fell a full moon rose over the water. The wind got stronger, too. We had ridden 92 miles, our longest day so far, and we were whipped.

Day 38: Missouri River to Freeman, SD

Psychologists will tell you that the quickest way to drive someone insane is to administer negative stimulus in a random way, so the person never knows when the next jolt is coming. This is what the wind did to us on Thursday the 18th. We started off at 9:30 am. We crossed the river and rode straight east through flat cropland, and the wind was more or less straight from the south. It was maybe a constant 15 mph wind, but as the day wore on it got gusty, and some of the gusts hit (we later learned) 35 mph. “When I saw you ride in here, I shook my head,” said the guy who served Jim his end-of-the-day milkshake. “You guys are really strong. And you’re nuts, too.”

Corn, dry beans, hay, milo, soybeans, sunflowers, more corn. Mile upon mile. “Hey, I saw a gumdrop,” said Jim. “A big green gumdrop lying in the middle of the road.”

“Don’t you dare stop,” I said. “If you stop and eat that, I will call Sara and we’ll drive you to the nearest psych ward.”

After two or three hours we rode into the tidy little town of Platte, which had just celebrated its high school homecoming. We got sticky buns at a café with scripture written on the walls, and listened to locals discussing their Bible study classes. Later we rode past a big school, which looked like a large public school, but was in fact the Dakota Christian Academy. The football team in Platte is called the Black Panthers. We were a long, long way from Oakland.

The wind wore and wore and wore at us, with no shelter possible until at last we saw a Lutheran church and lay down in its shadow. We lay there for five minutes or so in silence. “I guess nobody is going to bring us lemonade,” said Jim. We pushed on.

Jim admitted to feeling kind of depressed because his roadside treasure hunt wasn’t going well. He had seen a baseball cap from a dairy that was too dirty to pick up; assorted Bic lighters; and the gumdrop. I saw a beat-up aluminum cooking pot. But that isn’t much for 60 miles. It wouldn’t have been so dull had it not been for the wind. When you’re speeding along with your head up, you can see more. But we had kept our heads down all day bedause we had to focus on not being blown over. The reward came at the end of the ride in Parkston, where we encountered a large, cheerful fiberglass chicken and the milkshake referenced above.

It was a hard day, but the wind is forecast to be lighter tomorrow. The Parkston campground was horrid, and we were in no mood to ride further, so Sara, as usual, had a solution. We drove 30 miles further to Freeman, where a fine municipal campground awaited us. Calling ahead about it, Sara had gotten into a conversation with a town employee who invited us over to breakfast at his house on Friday. And on Friday afternoon, Tania flies into Sioux Falls to visit for the weekend. Things are looking up.

Days 39 & 40: Freeman, SD to Okoboji, IA

We had breakfast on Friday the 19th at the home of Jeff Tanner, the newly hired assistant city manager of Freeman, South Dakota. Sara had met him on the phone the day before, and he wanted to learn about the ride. We did the best we could to pack six weeks of stories into the hour we had together, and in return we met an interesting guy in an unusually progressive small town. Freeman has a clock tower that chimes every 15 minutes until 11pm, when it thoughtfully stops. The central business district is getting a facelift. As we left, volunteers were gathering in the city park to build a playground. Jeff is starting his career in public administration here, working on a Ph.D at night, shuttling back and forth to Denver to see his girlfriend, and riding his bike whenever he can fit it in. Jim and I coveted his youthful energy. He had good tips on county roads we could use instead of the state highway, too.

The south wind was still there but it wasn’t as fierce. We turned onto route 44 with a 70-mile ride before us. Flat and straight; corn, soybeans, corn. Jim coped in his usual way, by hunting for roadside treasures. The day before, he had found a heavy pair of pliers painted DOT orange. Today he started off by bagging a plastic tractor grille (he didn’t keep it). We rode for an hour and came into Parker, the seat of Turner County, which has a beautiful 1902 Courthouse and also beautiful donuts on display just down the street. We gorged on peanut logs and fritters at Herding’s Bakery and decided that we would add a pastry survey of the Upper Midwest to our work list. Five miles down the road I started having second thoughts about this plan. Eating donuts before a workout is probably similar to getting drunk before going to work at a convenience store. It seems like a good idea until your stomach gets back to your brain.

The county road we found was so quiet that we could ride down the middle of the asphalt for long stretches with no hands on the handebars. We stopped to inspect abandoned schoolhouses and farms once or twice. Mostly we kept going until we reached the City of Tea, SD. Really. The story is that the locals had a hard time coming up with a name when they applied for a post office at the turn of the century. They were German immigrants who saw afternoon tea as a necessity. Now there is a teapot collection in City Hall and the annual Teapot Days festival features fair food, fireworks, a mock bank robbery, and mud volleyball. We met up with Sara at a donut shop. The iced tea was strong and home-brewed.

Tea is a few exits south of Sioux Falls on Interstate 29, and we clipped the southeast edge of the metro’s sprawl as we continued east. The traffic difference is noticeable when you get to outer suburbs. City drivers don’t pay attention as well as rural drivers do, or maybe they’re just meaner. They are more likely to pull out in front of you, or to pass you at highway speed without moving over. We rode past the construction site for Harrisburg High School, which is clearly planning to be engulfed by the housing tracts that loom just over the northwest horizon. “I’m not ready for this,” said Jim. “Let’s get back to the country.”

Tania’s flight landed in Sioux Falls around noon. She expertly commandeered a rental car, made cell phone contact, and caught up with us at the Iowa border. There was no sign on the county road welcoming us, but we knew it was Iowa because we rode across the Big Sioux River. The soil had gotten darker. There was more moisture, too — enough that we saw frogs and turtles for the first time. The corn was thicker and taller. After 20 miles, another flat tire, and a milkshake at a convenience store in Larchwood, we stopped for the night at the first real Iowa town, Rock Rapids.

We took rooms at the only motel in town (which was clean and a steal at $55) and went into recovery mode. Tania had brought anti-puncture liners from Cayuga Ski & Cyclery. I put them inside my tires while she sat nearby with Jim and Sara, drinking wine and amusing herself at my expense. Then we went for a walk downtown to the only local restaurant we could find. What a find it was.

The B&L Vintage Brew And Sugar Shack serves home-cooked meals in an antique store. It is family owned and run, and the woman who waited on us was eager to share her stories of Iowa’s Republican Primary. She told us about how many hands John McCain shook when he came through town in January (one, hers) and who was nicest (Mitt Romney and his wife). Her sister overheard and came out of the kitchen to tell us that Rudy Giuliani had given a speech standing right over there, but that nobody liked him much. The food was great and nobody was in a hurry. It was great to have Tania back on the crew.

Rock Rapids wasn’t a wealthy place, but its Craftsman houses and ornate commercial buildings evoked a much more genteel past. It has been the starting point for the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) several times. The B&L Café people went on and on about how exciting and fun it was when the riders came through. We resolved to come back (for the umpteenth time), and the café owners said they’d remember us if we did. Stuffed and well-loved by local townsfolk, we waddled off to bed.

Day 40: Rock Rapids to Okoboji, IA

Saturday the 20th was the sixth straight day of rides averaging 70 miles or more, and Jim and I were tired. We were spurred on by the thought of back-to-back rest days on Sunday and Monday, along with Jim’s return to his hometown of Jackson, Minnesota. We also found a county road that would keep us off of State Route 9 for most of the day. We set off early and got off the state road before traffic built up, and soon we were riding the roads of Lyon County again. Every so often we’d see an abandoned farm and outbuildings that seemed to talk, although you had to stop and listen. And after an hour Jim stopped to announce that we’d ridden 2,000 miles. We banged fists and moved on.

We took a long lunch break in Sibley, where the High School football team (the Generals) was preparing for a big homecoming match against the Indians. Tania caught up with us there and excitedly ran into the local variety store, where she found flour-sack dishtowels and postcards that showed an ear of corn big enough to fill a flatbed.

Another unique aspect of riding through Iowa is the smell. Vertical integration is an economist’s term for the business practice of increasing one’s profits by centralizing the production and refining of a finished product. One example is putting a hog farm in the middle of a cornfield. Feed your corn to hogs and you can sell pork instead of corn. We saw a lot of this and the pork in Iowa is delicious, but the farms smell like a truck-stop bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned recently. We wondered where they put the poop.

Ethanol is another example of vertical integration. Many gas stations in Iowa sell something called “E-85” for about a dollar a gallon less than regular gasoline. It’s 85 percent ethanol and made from Iowa corn. And in many of these cornfields, we saw huge wind turbines that were just being installed. The heartland is turning into a new kind of power plant.

Jim struggled to the top of a 50-foot ridge that is near the highest point in the state of Iowa (1,670 feet). After a 30-mile slog through traffic on Route 9, we came into the region local people call the Great Lakes of Iowa. These are three large glacial lakes – Spirit, West Okiboji, and East Okiboji (pronounced Oh-Ka-BOH-Gee) clustered just south of the Minnesota border in Dickinson County. Okiboji is derived from a Dakota Sioux word meaning “place of rest.” Perfect.

Like the Finger Lakes, Iowa’s glacial lakes have been invaded by out-of-towners with money. And like the Finger Lakes, they boast a fine university, the University of Okoboji.  Except that this one is entirely made-up by local people who maintain the prank to fool tourists and then sell them t-shirts. Jim and Sara found a quiet RV park while Tania and I checked in at the Inn At Okoboji, which is a great old resort and a fine place if you avoid the drunken louts in the wedding party. The lake is beautiful and peaceful and quiet, and we are all exhausted.