Wed Jul 30 17:05:54 CDT 2003
Crossing the Rubicon Mississippi -- Anita, IA

Leaving Chicago on Monday the 21st, I made slow progress. I discovered that without the need to coordinate on a route for the day, and without Emily checking the map in advance, I took a "random-walk" approach to pathfinding. I started out going west, know I wanted to get on highway 30. Or 34. Or 54. Pretty much any even-numbered highway would do. Every now and then I'd get frustrated with going West and would start going South for a little while. Surprisingly, I actually made it to Highway 34 without much trouble.

I wound up camping in the Danada Forest Preserve. I was disappointed to discover that Forest Preserve is evidently Department of Natural Resources Lingo for "a bunch of houses wrapped in some trees." I eked out a campsite just barely out of site from the houses and trails, and slept happily.

Tuesday the 22nd I was all set to ride big miles, but shortly after I stopped for groceries I noticed that my derailleur wasn't working. Further inspection revealed that there was a plastic doohickey that juts out on the inner side and holds in place a screw, which holds the whole derailleur assembly in place, and it was broken. Nothing to do for it but to go to the bike shop and get a replacement. Luckily there was a bike shop ("Spokes") in the same plaza with the grocery store, but I had to wait around until 11:30 for them to open. When they finally did open, though, they were friendly and helpful. They replaced the derailleur with a new, higher-end one, and didn't even charge me for the labor.

That afternoon I made it about halfway across Indiana and camped on top of a hill next to some radio and cell phone towers. The burrs there were especially bad.

Wednesday the 23rd felt like a long day. It was dry and dusty. I made it most of the way across Indiana, and camped near Geneseo, just outside of the Quad-Cities area (Davenport, some other city, and two other cities).

The morning of Thursday the 24th I biked down towards Davenport and cross the Mississippi for the first time in my life. It was great, although unfortunately I wound up seeing it in two pieces, since the bridge I took stopped on a largish island halfway across. Even so, it was a might impressive river. There was a large dam on the section I crossed, along with a set of locks. There was a barge in the locks so big and solid-looking that I thought it was a pier of some sort. Across the river there was a loading dock where a giant crane was swinging intermodal containers out onto barges like they were child's blocks. Actually, I've heard that one of the major exports of Davenport is children's blocks, so perhaps that analogy is not so facile as it seems.

I arrived in Iowa City late in the day, where I was meeting my friend Kate, a mutual friend of Emily's. When I arrived in town and checked my messages I found that I had a job offer from Google! Hurrah! I had also earlier heard from Brightmail that they had an offer for me. So not only did I have an offer, I had a negotiating position. I am still not entirely decided on which job to take, but I'm leaning towards Google.

While I was sitting at a gas station charging my cell phone and waiting for Kate's class to get out, I met a cool fellow named Matthew who invited me to come hang out with him at his friend's shop on the Ped Mall. I told him I'd meet him there, and started packing up. When I arrived the store was locked up, which was a shame, but at least I had found the Ped Mall, which was a much nicer place to hang out. Iowa City's Ped Mall is almost exactly like Ithaca's Commons, except they have fireflies and a cool fountain you can run through. There were a whole bunch of people hanging around on benches, playing games, playing instruments, and so on. It was evidently quite the place to chill.

Kate came by and met me, then gave me directions to her house, which was nearby. We met back up there and I got all showered and cleaned. I also got to meet her friend Jane, roommate Michelle, and gentleman friend Nate, all of whom were great people. We went out to a pool hall and spent the rest of the night shooting pool. There was this crazy Swedish guy (good-crazy, not bad-crazy) named Oli who wandered over when Jane was M.I.A. for her shot, and took it for her. He was a much better shot, and gradually he wound up taking shots for more and more of us, until he was playing doubles pool against himself.

Friday the 25th, Nate was kind enough to show me around town a little bit. He helped me figure out where to find a welding shop. Both of the little aluminum struts which support my seat from the back had broken away from where they connect, and I wanted to get them fixed. Unfortunately the welder was swamped and there was no chance he could get to them until Monday. As I turned around to head back to town, I noticed the handlebars weren't turning right. They still turned, but it required a lot more effort suddenly, as if there was something pulling on them. I checked but there was nothing. I think that the connection to the fork had some grit in it or had gotten rusty or some such. Regardless, it was frustrating to add something else to the litany of things that had gone wrong on my bike: derailleur, seatback posts, steering, odometer (stopped working randomly after I got it back from the bike shop in Chicago, I think they broke it). Actually derailleur should go on there twice. After getting the nice new metal deraileur I noticed it would sometimes stop working in a similar way. I took a look at it, and found the little screw that was equivalent to the one that broke on the old derailleur. It was still in place, but now it was gouging a small groove into the aluminum of the frame where it attaches. It's okay so long as I don't switch into the lowest gear though.

After the welding shop, Nate and I met up again in the park by the river. It was a beautiful day, and we just sat by a lake and watched the willow trees and chatted. I guess mostly I chatted. Travelling alone leaves a big conversational void that I'm suddenly eager to fill. By the time I left Iowa City I was completely hoarse.

Friday evening, we hung out with some of Nate's friends and played Ten Thousand (a dice game, lots of fun) and Cranium (trivia and pictionary), then went out barhopping.

Saturday the 26th I reluctantly said goodbye to Kate & Nate, and headed West again. About halfway through the day, I spotted a soccer field that looked like a beautiful place for lunch, and I sat there so long reading & napping that lunch turned into dinner and I simply camped in the woods nearby.

Sunday the 27th I could feel a storm coming and couldn't decide whether to pack up or try and wait it out in the tent. I packed up and headed out, but as soon as I started out I was shocked by the appearance of the sky. There was a stark line straight across from South to North, separating dark grey, nearly black, from white clouds. It was clearly a huge storm coming through. I was already packed up though, so I started out down the road. I was lucky to hole up in a gas station just before it hit. It was a huge thunderstorm, and knocked out power briefly. While I waited it out, there were people coming in in their cars saying that they had been driving and had had to stop because the rain was too heavy.

I started out again around noon and got to Grinell by evening. At first I looked around for an inconspicuous place to camp near town, but I had heard there was a cheap motel on the edge of town, and it was looking like more rain, so I opted for a warm bed, shower and roof overhead. When I checked my voicemail I had a message from Emily. She was on her way to Iowa City to visit Kate after her Iowa trip, and wanted to congratulate me on my Google offer. I called her back and told her where I was. She had just passed Grinell, so she turned around and met me. We went out for pizza and caught up on all the news about everything that had happened to us. Her descriptions of Colorado have got me anxious to go there, although Iowa has been suprisingly pretty. The rolling hills take away a little of the boredom of Indiana and Illinois, and even the small towns seem to have more character.

Monday the 28th was a beautiful day. I couldn't tell whether it had rained overnight, but it was clear and bright by morning. I started out doing good mileage, then stopped in Newton for a long lunch and library break. While I was there, a nice lady walked up to me on the street and started talking to me, asking me about my trip and so on. She told me there was a bike trail I could catch near Baxter that would take me all the way into Des Moines. She also told me that Newton was the meth capital of Iowa, a little-known fact. For those who are less in-the-know, meth is short for methamphetamines, a stimulant. She told me, as she sipped a frappucino, that it was simply terrible how kids were getting hooked on these addictive drugs and messing up their bodies.

The bike path in Baxter was beautiful, although it took longer to get there than I had expected. Once I got on, though, the difference was amazing. It was like getting on a high-speed train. This train even had AC, because the trees on either side of the trail provided plenty of shade. I biked a fair bit of the way into Des Moines, then stopped by a group of bikers taking a break to ask how far I was. It turns out they were One-Eye, Crazy, Cousin Doug, and Sarah from Team Barfly and were on their post-RAGBRAI shakedown ride to a bar in Mingo. They were all psyched to hear about my ride, and invited me to turn around and go to the bar with them. It was only five miles back, so I went. They treated me wonderfully, buying me beer and pizza all night and telling stories about their RAGBRAI adventures. I met another couple of Barflies there, Matt and his girlfriend Melissa. We all went outside for a while and played hacky-sack until the mosquito sprayer came driving by and we had to go inside. At the end of the night we all rode back down the rail trail by headlights. Crazy called a stop halfway and we all turned off our lights and watched the stars. The Milky Way stood out brilliantly. I went back to Crazy's house on the river and crashed on his couch. Team Barfly's hopsitality was wonderful: I think I had at least four offers of a place to stay at the end of the night, and everyone had been calling friends in Nebraska and Colorado and California to find places for me to stay. I had such a good time, I'm convinced I have to go on RAGBRAI next year.

Tuesday morning (the 29th), Crazy took me to see the Iowa Capitol Building, a really beautiful old restored classical building. Then he put me on a bike path heading west and wished me the best. I biked for a long time, with another long stop for lunch in Adel. Towards the end of the evening though, I found myself in farm country, with not a stand of trees to camp in. I was on the verge of knocking on someone's door and simply asking to camp in their yard, but after two nights under a roof, I really wanted to find a stand of trees. I held out and was lucky to find a nearly perfect campsite on top of a hill.

I had heard so much on Monday about how amazing Iowa sweet corn is, and how it is the best corn in the world, that I had to try some despite my inadequate cooking gear. I had bought an ear earlier in the day, and peeled it, broke it in two, and just barely managed to fit it in my cooking pot. It was entirely worth the trouble. It was the best corn I've ever had.

Overnight it rained heavily and I heard a big deer whuffing outside my hammock. Today has been beautiful and I went swimming at lunch in Anita Lake State Park.