Even though Martha had already ridden a portion of this trail last May when she did the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota, she had agreed to do this whole trail with me this summer, and Ed had consented to driving us to the location to give us more flexibility in making the trip. Therefore, this was a packed—very packed to be exact—four day driving and biking trip to the cornfields of Iowa and back to Atlanta. What packed it was not so much the length of the trail but the driving time to and from the trail, and the two side trips we took near Des Moines that added interesting “probably-won’t-have-this-opportunity-again” novelty to the excursion. Instead of blogging this as four separate days, though, we decided to combine all events into one posting from each of us, which means I’ve decided to categorize the information into topics rather than chronologically. (I don’t know how Martha is doing hers.)
I’ll start with the bike experience, since that was the purpose of the trip and my main reason for doing these blog entries. At 63 miles, the Wabash Trace Nature Trail extends from a park on the outskirts of Council Bluffs, Iowa, to a tiny little town on the Missouri border, Blanchard, Iowa. It is definitely a rural area, filled with soybean and corn fields, a few very small towns, and rolling hills (the brochure says these are actually topological terrains called Loess, meaning “loose soil” from wind and erosion following the glaciers). The trail view was canopied by walnut and other hardwood trees and thus mostly shady for almost all the way, which was nice, but which also gave us practically the same scenery to look at for several hours. It was broken by expansive views of the countryside—acres and acres of thickly planted, healthy looking, corn and soybean. Actually, it was rather pretty seeing all this agriculture beyond our relatively narrow trail. We saw few wild flowers (maybe two or three quick patches) and some chipmunks, birds, butterflies, and grasshoppers.
Around Council Bluffs we passed several other trail users, but on the second day’s ride only nine other people total. Probably the most interesting part of the ride was crossing many trestles that carried us over scenic streams, narrow irrigation canals, and several relatively wide rivers (the names of which I will have to look up on the map as there were no signs indicating their names). And speaking of signs and other amenities along the trail, for the ten or so miles south of Council Bluffs, we had markers indicating even quarter mile lengths, but after that, the only mile markers were old white ones probably from the railroad days because they did mark the miles but we could never figure out the beginning or ending locations of the numbers. After the town of Malvern, about twenty miles south of Council Bluffs, we saw maybe two or three benches and NO public toilet facilities. (I guess if the little building in Shenandoah—which, by the way, had no sign naming it as an old Shenandoah railroad building—had been opened—it was Sunday—they probably had restrooms), but even at the southern end of the trail, there was nothing. I will compliment two resting spots on this southern end that appeared to have been donated by private families: one was a covered swing big enough for two or three people, and one was an unusual wooden bench for two people that looked more like a chase lounge with a back and knee prop, looking sort of like an S without the top curve. As I pedaled off after stopping to try it out, I wished that I had taken a picture of it, but by then it was too much hassle to turn around and go back for the photograph. A person named Don had inscribed on it “Sit down and rest a bit; you’re making me nervous” (or something like that). I thought it was cute, and it definitely was comfortable.
We divided our ride into two stretches—Saturday late afternoon we did 22 miles from Council Bluffs to the town of Malvern (not a bad size little town) for a two and one/half hour ride, and Sunday morning we did the other 41 miles from Malvern to Blanchard, for a five hour ride. It didn’t take us the whole five hours to bike, of course, because we had some short picture and refreshment breaks, but I will say that our average speed was definitely slowed down by the upkeep of the trail. Most of it was hard-packed crushed limestone and dirt combination, with some places where the newly-added crushed rocks were not as packed as we would have preferred, and around a couple of the small towns there was some paved stretches. Seems to me it definitely is not a trail for road bikes’ skinny tires. Concerning the difficulty/ease of the ride, the trail had a lot of ups and downs that slowed us down on the ups, not steep elevation gains but long enough of gradual inclines to where we could feel in our legs and speed that we were definitely going uphill several times. It also crossed numerous gravel county roads, at which we had to pretty much stop in order to see that the crossing was clear.
The upkeep of the trail from Shenandoah to Blanchard had much to be desired on the day we rode it, especially the last ten or fifteen miles. Tree limbs and twigs and some loose rocks were lying scattered over much of the trail, weeds were growing in the trail, overhanging limbs with leaves had to be pushed out of our way as we rode past them, and the trail had some holes and ruts that also had to be dodged as we pedaled along. This condition prompted a conversation about how if a trail is going to be named a “Hall of Fame Rail to Trail,” then the upkeep should be maintained to a higher quality or dropped from the list. To emphasize our concern, let me describe the end/beginning of the trail in Blanchard: it merely stops. Just stops. Grass/weeds are growing to the sides and at the end as it heads into/out of the woods, and we could see a street with a small post office and a couple other old buildings about 50 yards to our left. There was NO sign indicating it was even the Wabash Trace Natural Trail. Actually, it was quite disappointing. If we had been beginning the ride there, to ride south to north, it would have been quite difficult to know where to start. In our case, we were finishing, so we walked our bikes across the weeds to the main street, where Ed was waiting with the truck. I didn’t even see a sign indicating that this was Blanchard, except for the post office.
So we left Blanchard and began heading northeast on the state roads back toward Des Moines where Martha wanted to see the two covered bridges that were used in filming Bridges of Madison County, one of her all-time favorite movies with young Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Since I had not seen the movie, it was just entertainment factor and because Martha wanted so much to see them that I voted for this two hour deviation on our trip back to St. Louis. Besides, this might be the only time in my life that I would ever drive these gravel roads to see these covered bridges. So we saw the Roseman Covered Bridge and the Holliwell Covered Bridge, both built in the early 1880s. I must add they were historically interesting, I’m sure more meaningful had I seen the movie.
Between the bridges we drove through the town of Winterset, Iowa, and drove past the birthplace home of the western movie star, John Wayne (although that wasn’t his birth name). It is a very small, white, corner house that might have been interesting to go inside, but time was at a premium. That was around 6 pm and the road construction detour added an additional hour delay, so we didn’t reach our motel until around midnight. It was a long drive to end a long day that started at 7:30 am heading to the bike trail.
My reference above of “back to Des Moines” was because after we had left Columbia, Missouri, (our first night stop) on Saturday morning we drove north and a little bit east for four hours to get to the Iowa State Fair, where Martha had meticulously researched the location of Donald Trump’s (Republican primary presidential candidate) helicopter landing and press conference that actually wasn’t publicized to the public, so we would be part of a small crowd of people and could probably see and hear Trump up close. The site was actually not in the fairgrounds (that would have been very crowded, as it is a big deal in Iowa) but at a girls’ softball field about a mile from the Fair. Martha’s lengthy sleuthing paid off, and we indeed arrived at the right spot about an hour before Trump made his appearance in his TRUMP helicopter. Because we were there so early, we received “Trump Make America Great” t-shirts and mingled with some of the reporters as we awaited his arrival. (We heard a campaign worker tell a reporter that this was all about giving kids rides on his helicopter, not about publicity, but his arrival was QUITE ostentatious.) I had quickly contacted Ron, Henry, and Tommy to watch for me on TV at 1: 15, and they were all watching the TV news, but the secret service had moved us all behind the fence so that we couldn’t stand behind Trump during the press conference, and then when he moved to the helicopter with all the kids he was taking up, I didn’t move fast enough to get into that crowd and be seen through the TV cameras. Ron said he was pretty sure he saw Ed standing by a reporter. Oh well, it was entertaining and, as Tommy said, maybe another time I’ll be on the news. Not that I’m a fan of Trump, or even supporting him in his candidacy, but it was a different and not-so-common experience. And as Martha and I say, it’s good to be flexible on these bike trips, as the side-trips are part of the experience.
And now we’re on our eight-hour drive back to Atlanta, barring any more road detours or accident traffic jams. I’ll have some interesting events to recount in Johnny’s and my Deutschkurs as we share in German about unsere Wochende.