Iowa spoiled us when it comes to biking, offering so many great trails hidden in the woods, lining rivers or along former rail lines, away from the cars and pickups that rumble down rural backroads, kicking up dust and occasionally causing heart palpitations.
But here in SW Michigan, in the absence of designated bike trails, we are getting into biking the backroads (aka “secondary roads”) around Three Oaks, with help from handy brochures with 9 routes to the north and 9 to the south. We found the brochures at the Dewey Cannon Trading Co./three oaks bicycle museum which also offers rental bikes.
The routes are charted by Three Oaks Spokes, a nonprofit bike touring club, the same folks hosting the annual “apple cider century” bike tour this weekend (last September Sunday), offering 15, 25, 50, 75 and 100 mile rides. I also found slightly different routes online at applecidercentury.com.
We rode most of the “Dayton Lake Trail” and learned the hard way that improvising can be tricky.
We tried a few alternate roads to shorten the 28-mile ride (due to daunting headwinds that slowed us so much that I wondered if my bike had a flat tire) and occasionally found ourselves on a scary highway (route 12) with huge trucks speeding by, way too close, or bucolic dirt and gravel roads lined with tall browning corn or yellowing soybeans, dotted with an old barn or farmhouse. One very scenic and empty paved road (Buffalo Road) turned suddenly into an “un-improved road,” according to the official sign. Too unimproved to ride safely.
Two years ago, when I wrote a cover story about the Raccoon River Valley Trail for Rails to Trails magazine, the trail was looking good. Now it’s even better, as promised two years ago. Where the trail intersects with gravel roads, the section you ride over is now paved – rather than gravel, which is a huge improvement. There is also new landscaping here and there – some with new amenities such as picnic tables — which is also greatly appreciated.
It was hot and humid on the trail yesterday, which may explain why we had the 12-mile stretch from Redfield to Panora almost to ourselves. Lovely autumn landscape (despite the summary weather) with wide expanses of yellowing corn and still-green soy beans and old barns and bright blue silos in the distance. In the tiny town of Linden (a midway point), we had a lovely picnic at a table under an overhang in a small park. No one around other than the occasional piece of farm machinery rumbling by. In Panora, we stopped trailside at the Kick Stop for some ice cream and met some fellow riders from….the Czech Republic (they’ve lived in Ames, home of Iowa State U., for years). Great day and welcome reminder of what I love about living in Iowa.
…was enough for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the 39.9 mile (i.e. 40 mile) ride on Day 3 of RAGBRAI from Winterset to Indianola in central Iowa. Glorious weather, fun biking companions (my docent friend Judy and her friend Carole, from Fort Dodge, and Carole’s daughter.).
The ride wasn’t as hilly as I feared – but hilly enough, which was a challenge for me psychologically (not to mention physically) because after breaking my arm twice, I’ve become even more cautious. I braked a lot on the downhills, which were further complicated by the often rough condition of the roads (a big crack down the middle at times, bumpy patches and other cracks). Sadly, the danger I perceived was real — three riders landed in the hospital, some with what sounds like serious injuries. Part of the issue too is that there were so many riders and I’m partly to blame for that. Like many Des Moines residents, I jumped on the ride for a day because it was coming so close to home.
As we arrived in Indianola, after some hills that felt gratuitous to include on the route. I was surprised to see a big hole in the center of the square where apparently the old courthouse is being replaced with a new “justice center.” Apparently the festivities were actually nearby — on the Simpson U. campus. (News to me.) I did find Outer Scoop on Jefferson, for some great and much-deserved ice cream.
Yes, Bike the Drive was definitely worth getting up at 5:30 a.m.. The chance to ride a bike along Lake Shore Drive with nothing except other bikes, albeit thousands of them, was much-appreciated. The annual event was orderly and well-organized, with lots of helpful volunteers, very little red tape or lines, and plenty of free food (bananas, apples, cliff bars, even designer coffee.) I was riding a borrowed 6-speed Schwinn with a very comfortable wide seat. The only minor challenge was making it up several minor inclines. Otherwise the route was flat and very scenic. I spotted sights along “LSD” I’d never seen during decades of zipping along it in my car.
We got lucky with the weather. The sky was overcast and dark at times but it never rained beyond some drizzle. At points, the sun almost came out and the lake looked beautiful, as did the dramatic skyline. What a treat to see some of the dramatic high-rise architecture along the river leading to the lake from new vantage points. And for a moment you had a feel for what might be if we were all less dependent on our gas-guzzling cars. I did recall, at times, the thrill of riding on some bike-only bridge in Copenhagen and, of course, the temporary bike-only rural roads in Iowa during RAGBRAI.
I rode a few blocks from Emma and Rockets in Edgewater to the BRyn Mawr entrance onto the Drive and rode south 8 miles to Grant Park where I met up wi5 my sister Jill and two of her friends who took the El in from Oak Park. I wanted to keep riding south but we sort of ran out of time (there are some timing issues to keep track of – and I am glad I started at 6:30 am) so we rode back north. next time, I may being my bike and ride all the way down and back, the earlier the better.
This afternoon we went to the Sunday farmers market in Logan Square and to delicious Bang Bang Pie shop, which serves, yes, pie — sweet and savory. We had excellent chocolate caramel pie and key lime pie (they’d run out of strawberry rhubarb) and sampled the chicken pot pie. Also had great homemade lemonade with free refills. We also walked Millie around E & R’s lovely Edgewater neighborhood.
Playing catch up. On Sunday, we met our friend Jane for breakfast at Sjolinds (“shoe” linds) in downtown Mount Horeb – cheerful Scandinavia fare (tried the Scandinavian fruit soup, bit too gelatinous for me and certainly for Dirck). We got a sneak peak at the very impressive Driftless Historium, a new local history museum (that I’m writing a story about) and then attempted to ride bikes in 94 degree heat on the Military Ridge State Trail. The trail is packed dirt and stone but really lovely. But the heat kept us from going far. We went a few miles east, which was all downhill (we barely peddled) but, of course, uphill on the return; Then we went a few more miles west which was more level but less shady and closer to the highway.
Mount Horeb’s Grumpy Troll brewpub was packed with hot sweaty people like us — including several motorcyclists. We ended up on the second floor, eating newly introduced nachos. Pleasant place. And cool temps! To really cool off, we went to the local swimming hole — Stewart Lake County Park — which reminded me a bit of Ithaca. Small body of water, murky and warm on top, colder toward the bottom, lined with woods including the occasional white birch (my favorite). Across from the sandy beach, some kids took turns climbing up a sagging pine tree and jumping when they reached the top. Dangerous but looked like fun. We drove to nearby Blue Mounds and spotted people eating ice cream cones on the porch of the local convenience store so we joined them. (The one employee was very busy scooping cones and working the cash register.) Onto Blue Mound State Park where we climbed up a high old wooden observation tower (I got a splinter holding onto the railing) for a stupendous view of rolling green Wisconsin dairyland – with pristine red wood/stone foundation barns, century farms with white farmhouses, the occasional golden limestone house like the stunner we airbnbed in. As our friend Jane suggested, we drove from the park along Ryan Road (near Highway F) for more glorious views from high on a ridge. We also drove past Campo Di Bella Winery which also offers farm-to-table meals and farm stays. Looks promising!
Dinner was classic townie – Marcine’s, a tavern in the small town of Mount Vernon, that Jane took us to. Fortunately we just missed the band (which could have been very loud) but sat at high top tables and drank beer and ate very good burgers. Place was packed. Later, we finally could really enjoy the porch at our airbnb (cooler temps, fewer bugs), where we sat on a quiet night and chatted with our airbnb host Nina, a former professional juggler who does various jobs now (including helping out at the famous Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds).
Flat out gorgeous weather today, for the first time during this trip. And we put it to good use. Francine and I hopped on bikes and rode a few miles to Richmond Park, which was full of Sunday strollers and riders and deer with antlers moving in great packs. Blue sky, sunshine, light breeze, gravelly dirt paths. We rode the circular path all around the park about 7 miles. It was largely flat except for one big hill. Just beyond some of the entrance gates I could vaguely see posh brick homes in “The London Borough of Rich People on Thames” (a phrase coined by my friends here…)
This afternoon, Francine’s relatives came for a late lunch and we had a great meal including Pavlova prepared by someone who knows her pavs…Francine’s step mum who lives in Sydney and grew up in New Zealand. (Lesson learned: pile on a lot more fruit than I have done in the past to offset the sweet merengue. Try kiwi as well as berries.)
It has been such a treat to ride bikes in London. When I lived here in my early 20s, I rode my bike all over the city but not along the Thames Path, that I can remember. Today, we rode toward Hammersmith from Mortlake (I think we were riding east on the south side of the river but the river is so curvy it’s hard to tell.) I never noticed how beautiful the Hammersmith Bridge was until I walked a bike across it. On the north side of the river, we lucked out with an outside table overlooking the river at The Dove, a great old pub with excellent food (fish and chips, chicken liver “parfait” — pate with sprinkles of pork skin crackle and a dab of homemade applesauce). We chatted with an interesting English couple who just moved back to London after 10 years in D.C
After lunch, we discovered that we’d parked our bikes in front of the William Morris Society — my second encounter with WM and the place offered some interesting sounding classes or lectures. The bike/walking path was a little harder to follow on the north side but we rode past pretty old houses and boat or athletic clubs and a golf course before crossing Chiswick bridge and riding the path to the Brentford Gate of Kew Gardens to meet Francine and Russ. We had a scary time trying to cross several lanes of traffic on the bridge so we could get back on the Thames Path (next time, we need to ride across the bridge’s east side.)
Kew was lovely. We had Pimms (a tad overpriced but location, location, location) on patio at The Orangery, overlooking gardens and huge gorgeous trees, visited the crazy clever “hive” – a sculptural depiction of a giant bee hive with lights and soft music somehow aligned with real bee activity in real hives nearby, and took in the veg gardens. Also enjoyed Sackler Bridge – a pedestrian bridge across a narrow lake. Our only complaint was the signage, especially to out of the way spots like Queen Charlotte’s cottage. I love London.
Beautiful weather (sunny but not as hot as yesterday) so once we got on bikes in Mortlake along the Thames Path, we didn’t want to get off. On a Friday, the trail along the river was largely empty until we got to major tourist areas like Richmond and towns like Kingston and it felt like we were very far from big city London. At times, we could have been in a small country village, with weeping willows draped over the quiet narrow winding river, dirt and stone trails under shady trees, little lanes leading to town. We passed houseboats, kids learning to kayak in a river inlet, small tour boats heading to Hampton Court, riverside pubs and restaurants, tourists hanging out in Richmond.
We stopped at the Petersham Nurseries for lunch at the tearoom. Pricy but good food (sandwiches, salads including a chicken salad with lentils I must try to replicate) and we ate in the garden, watching staff in the neighboring greenhouse cutting flowers to make beautiful bouquets. We didn’t quite make it to Hampton Court (next time, we need to cross the Kingston bridge and ride inland on the other side of the river) but we stumbled upon the bustling square at Kingston which was very lively, with a big outdoor farmers market, a cool old town hall with a gold statue, a pretty old church and yard. S0uth of Kingston was not as nice. The bike trail and terrain became urban/suburban. NO thanks so we turned back and st teddimgton Lock, road to the Ham Gate of Richmond Park. With the exception of one challenging uphill, we had a flat and pretty park ride. We did stop at a cafe because we were desperate for water and got gouged — 7 pounds for a water, small ice tea and flapjack. Next time we go on what turned out to be a 25 mike ride in London we need to remember our water bottle and day pack.
At night, we trekked to Richmond Park for an evening opening of the London Zoo, where we found better people watching than animal watching although there were cool monkeys and penguins.The zoo was packed with young people in particular. Dinner was Indian/Bangladeshi and excellent at Namaaste Kitchen (64 Parkway) in Camden, which was full of kids going to pubs and clubs. I fell asleep on the #24 bus ride back to Hammersmith station where we got a cab to Mortlake, arriving “home” at 1 a.m.
There were near traffic jams on the bike trails in Des Moines yesterday – and not surprising considering that this is the first time I can ever remember riding my bike here in 70 degree weather on Feb. 19th. Something weird is happening with our climate, no doubt, but it was great to get outside and hit the trails during what is usually one of winter’s worst months. Also pleased to see that the Jackson Street Bridge near Principal Park has reopened, better than ever.
Also need to mention that Americana Restaurant‘s hamburger was amazingly good on Friday night (when I was in emotional distress and in need of a serious burger and an outing with old friends). I’m always impressed when a burger actually arrives medium rare – when I’ve ordered it medium rare – and the extra fixings made it even better.