HARPERS FERRY TO GUTTENBERG
I was still in my nightgown when Jane and Wayne walked in the door
to our cabin bearing the gift of coffee to add to the muffins and fruit they had given us the night before. It’s a good thing we already felt like family less than twenty-four hours in to our visit with them in Harpers Ferry, Iowa! After a few sips and a little conversation, we poured a few extra cups for us to keep working on, and Jane and Wayne took their leave, likely realizing we still had a bit of work to do before being ready to mount the road ahead to Guttenberg. On cue, I shut down my computer, got cleaned up, repacked the duffle with clothes, the hard case with electronics, and the small tote with cables, and compressed my body into my ROKA trisuit to be ready to ride the first 16 miles toward Guttenberg, Iowa.
Today was the first real day of climbing. We couldn’t escape the “driftless” region as they call it—unscathed by the last ice age and so graced with mountainous hills and bluffs—without some serious challenges, or weightlifting on the bike as one of our coaches has called it. My climb was long and gentle at first, so gentle I thought I had escaped the worst of it… Until, it got steeper, and steeper, and even steeper, and seemed it would never end. And even when I thought I reached the top where I saw Tom and the van pulled off to the side, I saw off in the near distance, another hill to climb. Tom assured me that was the last of it as he strapped a reflective vest onto me, because while the hills were nearly over on my leg of this ride, the shoulder was about to disappear and I would be taking the lane.
Out I rode into traffic, beacon of light with my reflective vest and two rear flashing lights ablaze, asking for mercy from the traffic approaching from behind. And truly, the cars, even the big trucks, were kind. What was less kind was the road itself, especially as I hit the downhill, a 7% grade with signage warning the semi’s of tipping, on a road with zero shoulder and potholes galore! I was gripping hard, tension in my back, trying to relax the elbows like Coach Nic King Ruley always says to do, but feeling the squeeze on the brakes as the only life-saver in this downhill terror ride. I even felt like my gloves were sweating forcing me to regrip my hands and release the breaks taking me into a rush downhill, but as I cried outloud for level ground and a return to pedaling—indeed I’d have rathered be back on that grueling climb—I finally reached the bottom of the hill.
It was still another several miles to the exchange with Tom, still in the lane, still pedaling hard to not anger the motorists behind me as best as possible. I saw Tom pulled off at a Kwik Trip in Marquette, Iowa so I turned in. I still had 4 miles to go, but he had scouted this bathroom stop for me, generously, so I waltzed in looking like an outsider in my svelte sunglasses and bike helmet, trisuit that was definitely now sticking to my body and very hard to get off for the designated task. The cashier gave me a smile and I nodded back. Just friendly people on the river, even to us strangers.
Four miles down the road at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in McGregor, Iowa, Tom took over on bike. He had two hills ahead of him, but two downhills as well. Working for him, however, was the sign that read “MRT BEGINS,” designating that the Mississippi River Trail was now supported along this stretch of road, with the shoulder reappearing and smooth pavement for the whole ride to Guttenberg. I stopped a few places along his leg of the ride to check in with him, but he never stopped to say hello. He was powering through the hills like nobody’s business and gathering landscapes all the while, narrating into the onboard camera all that he saw and felt and heard—while I, on the other hand, was mostly huffing and puffing during my ride.
I met him at the foot of Heitman Hill just a little more than 3 miles north of the Lock and Dam in Guttenberg. Shortly after drove up Dean Shultz and his grandson Tate as well as Kristin Toppin, a native of Waterloo who spends time in Clayton County in the summers. Dean had actually reached out to me some months ago about joining me and the Relay Team for the run into town—in fact, Dean was the first runner from a river community who approached me about joining the Relay Team for a day. I was so excited at the time, and even more thrilled to meet him in person. When we corresponded he said, “I can show you where the river valley smiles and sheds tears.” And while I don’t know if we’ve gotten to that specific place he was speaking of quite yet, I do feel that just knowing Dean and a small bit of his story, I’m getting to feel the river valley smiling and crying while we are in it.
Dean’s grandson Tate lead the way down the Great River Road, and we made it down to the dike and jumped on for the last leg, where Tate bolted out ahead of us all. For a nine year old, he’s got some legs under him! We were greeted at the Gazebo in the park by Mandy Ludovissy of the Guttenberg Chamber, bearing a tub full of iced down water bottles—very welcome to us weary runners and travelers. We all shared a bit about our relationships to the river, to running, to the communities where we are from, as a sort of introduction I suppose. Then Mandy escorted Tom and I to our lodging for the night before returning to shuttle Dean, Tate and Kristin back to the car at the foot of Heitman Hill. Tom and I had instructions to settle in, eat some lunch provided to us by the Picket Fence Cafe, then head over to the DNR Fisheries office across the street. Kevin and Karen were waiting to take us electrofishing that afternoon, which at this point still sounded like mysterious torture fishing, so we were of course all in.
Of course, we were THOROUGHLY disappointed! There was no mystery and the fish were not tortured. In fact they are caught in a net and then released back into the river! And even better, Tom and I got to participate—we were the designated “fishermen” wielding long large nets, scooping up slightly stunned fish in order to take them into the boat for measurement before Kevin threw them back in the water. I do hope they don’t mind being thrown around a bit! But seriously, the experience was amazing, driving out 10 miles toward Cassville, just feeling the river and the wild as we rode on the boat. Kevin would stop occasionally to share with us specific details about a slough or an island, different developments or changes along the river. It’s impossible to quantify in this one small paragraph all that I learned yesterday on the river, but I see that some folks are doing a lot to understand the habitat and how it’s being affected by human impact.
Following our fishing outing, we stopped in on Becky Hefel at Roots, a local boutique on the Guttenberg main drag. Roots is full of modern and vintage finds, which means of course I found something I couldn’t live without. I mean, who COULD live without a woven poncho with bird motif when you are traveling the migratory capitol of the world—the Mississippi River flyway. Anyhow, back to Becky.
She’s a local, moved away for a while with her husband, but eventually moved back because, well, people were just nicer here in Guttenberg. You could trust a person to be honest about their life and their business here in a way you couldn’t in a bigger city. Becky remembered how when she first moved back to Guttenberg from Denver people would leave their cars running while in the grocery store during winter. She thought, you couldn’t get away with that in Denver!
We left Kathy and Roots and wandered down the street a few more blocks to meet Joe Ihm, an mainstay of the community, fisherman and former mail carrier amongst other things. Together with Joe, we had dinner at Mike’s Fish Shack right on the water. The shack used to be a fish cleaning shack but obviously now converted to a restaurant. Mike is a lumbering yet friendly guy insofar as he was eating a popsicle as we walked in and offered me one—which I took him up on, a purple one to be exact. Tom and Joe went in for a beer instead. We ate flat head catfish, kneffle, and kukes—which translates to fried fish, cheesy potatoes, and vinegar cucumbers. All delicious.
After dinner we made it over to River of Music, the Friday night music series in the park along the river. A couple of barges made way through the Lock and Dam during the concert, which made for nice scenery for sure. We also had a nice visit with Dean and Tate again, as well as their friends Gary and Kathy who also have a home in Clayton. Gary assured me that some people really do care about water quality and what’s happening downriver of Iowa. He knows Iowa is a big contributor to some of the issues my home State of Louisiana is facing and is eager to spark up that conversation here where he lives. On that same note, we ran into another gentleman, Ray, who thought I was a spy sent from Louisiana to fetter out the farmers and other Midwesterners who might be polluting the river. I assured him that I was no spy—none of what I am doing is in secret. I’m just asking honest people honest questions, and working very hard to listen both when they speak and when they are silent.
River of Music was not the highlight of the evening, however, as just a few hours later, as we tucked into our apartment with a riverfront view off the balcony, we started to hear the faint song of a calliope. Honestly, I thought it might be the ice cream truck on the street, but then it kept getting louder, and more persistent, and then the lights of the paddle boat appeared out the window, and Tom was rushing outside then inside then outside, and finally out the front door to go watch it pass into the Lock. While I stayed inside studiously working on my log for the day, Tom experienced Friday night in Guttenberg at its finest! Everyone was out, beads were flying off the boat, cries and conversations going both ways, it was quite an event.
With the American Queen Steamboat Company through the Lock and Dam, quiet could return to the town, and at last, this weary traveler went to sleep.