Sunday morning, early October, chilly but sunny, not a cloud in the sky, very little wind. Who wouldn’t want to go for a bike ride? Now, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “Greg, old sock, you always want to go for a bike ride.” First, stop calling me ‘old sock’. Second, well, yeah.
My brother-in-law, who’ll I’ll call “Jeff” (on account of that’s his name) and I started our ride in a little Iowa town called Mingo. I am NOT making that up. It’s an old coal-mining town, named after the Mingo tribe of the Iroquois nation. The Mingos, by the way, didn’t call themselves Mingos; that’s what the neighboring Algonquin tribes called them. It’s a corruption of the Algonquin term mingwe, which apparently means ‘sneaky’. But they weren’t sneaky enough to escape the notice of ‘progress’. As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, any remaining Mingos in Iowa were required to shift themselves to Kansas. Why? As President Andrew Jackson said at the time,
“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?”
Andrew Jackson was more fucking savage than the Mingos, and a LOT of us would prefer a country covered with forests. Anyway, Mingo now is a sneaky little town of about 300 white people and a small biker tavern (as opposed to a cyclist pub). We did NOT have a beer at the Greencastle Tavern because 10:30 in the morning is too early to drink. And besides, the tavern wasn’t open yet.
This bike trail is called the Chichaqua Valley Trail. You might assume that’s because it runs through the Chichaqua Valley. Silly rabbit. There is no Chichaqua Valley. There is, however, a 25-mile-long series of oxbows and bottomlands called the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. The oxbows are the isolated remains of the South Skunk River, which coal companies ‘straightened’ in order to facilitate barges transporting coal from mining towns like Mingo. More ‘progress’.
The Skunk River got its name a couple hundred years before the Mingo arrived in this part of the country. The French voyageurs, exploring and trapping beaver, asked the local Meskwaki tribe what the river was called. They were told the river was Chichaqua. The natives were referring the smell of the wild onions and cabbage that grew along the riverbanks. They’d also used that term to describe skunks. So we can thank the confused French for the Skunk River.
Like so many Iowa bicycle trails, the Chichaqua Trail follows an old railroad line. This was the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad, originally built in 1885 to haul coal and livestock throughout the Midwest. You can actually gauge your progress along the trail by watching for old railroad mile markers that show the distance to Kansas City. Unlike most rails-to-trails bike paths, which tend to be incredibly straight and incredibly dull, this trail is full of curves and turns. One bicycle trail guide describes it as ‘serpentine,’ which may be a tad too elegant, but isn’t entirely wrong.
It runs mostly through farmland and woods. It’s a quiet trail. Even on a perfect autumn Sunday afternoon, we saw very few other cyclists. For the most part, all you hear is the wind and the sound of your tires on pavement or rattling over the many wooden bridges. There are a LOT of bridges–some small, some extensive. The trail crosses over creeks, drainage ditches, oxbows, and the South Skunk River. I don’t know how many bridges there are; I forgot to keep count after the first nine.
We tend to think of bike trails on old railroad lines as being flat–and they generally are. When there are hills, early railroad builders tended to rely on long slow inclines. Really long inclines. There’s a section of the trail that winds uphill for just about four miles. And I mean it winds. You can only see a few hundred feet in front of you, so you have no grasp of just how close–or how far away–you are from the top. It’s not steep, but it’s fucking endless. You start to believe…to hope…that you’ll be able to see the top around the next bend in the trail, And each bend in the trail crushes that hope. You won’t see any photos of that hill, because there was no way I was going to stop.
After about 15 miles, we reached the town of Bondurant, named for the first white person who settled there (Alexander C. Bondurant–I don’t know if he did anything worthy or important other than being white and deciding he’d gone far enough west and decided to just stop traveling). Eventually the Chicago Great Western Railway Company built a depot there–which has been reproduced as a rest area for cyclists. It’s very nice. Bathrooms, picnic tables, repair station, drinking water. All very pleasant, but Jeff and I made straight for Reclaimed Rails–a bike brew pub just off the trail.
One of the best things about cycling in Iowa is the advent of the bike brew pub. Beer and bikes are a natural pairing. The sugars and salts in beer help you absorb fluids more efficiently than water alone; you’d have to drink a lot more water to get the same hydration effects of beer. No, I’m serious. THIS IS SCIENCE, people. Beer also has almost as many antioxidants as red wine, and that helps your leg muscles recover. And hey, it’s cold and it tastes good.
After hydrating and dosing ourselves with antioxidants (mine was a nice malty Märzen), we set off again. After a few miles, we turned off onto the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, named for the advocate who came up with the idea of a series of bike paths and trails through central Iowa. Unlike the rails-to-trails bike paths, which were based on direct routes for transporting goods, the Gay Lea Wilson trail weaves in and out of semi-rural areas and suburbs. It’s designed to transport people, making it easy for folks (and families) to access the trail and travel by bike to places they want to visit. Places like libraries and parks and picnic areas and playgrounds and…well, brew pubs.
Another 15 miles or so took us to our final stop: Brightside Aleworks, a fairly new craft brew pub that has a relaxed vibe closer to a coffee shop than a beer joint. We’d ridden about 33 miles altogether. Aside from the brutal four mile uphill stretch, it was a nice way to spend a day. It was fun. And the beer was cold and welcome (I had a biscuity, slightly sweet Irish red).
That’s the thing about cycling. It’s fun. Sure, it’s good for you. Fresh air, healthy exercise, all that. But mostly it’s fun. That’s why I ride. Bugger exercise; I ride because it makes me happy. Because it’s one of the best ways to see the world you live in. You get to meander along at whatever pace you want (well, fucking hills excepted) and be a part of the landscape, rather than just passing through it in a car.
Dr. K.K. Doty (who doesn’t seem to exist on the internet other than as the author of this quote) wrote: Cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to. Most ills. Not all ills. But most. It’s a bicycle, not a miracle machine.
Well, maybe a miracle machine. Small miracles in a big world. It’s enough.
I loved this! You’re so lucky to have so many beautiful meandering trails—not to mention bike brew puts. Many many years ago my husband and I cycled through Ireland, and it remains a highlight of all the travels I’ve done. It was the BEST way to experience the island. Always with a pint (or two) of Guinness or half-and-half and, very often, a dinner of fresh-caught salmon at the end of the day.
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Oh, I’d LOVE to cycle around Ireland. I spent a couple of weeks there, tooling around randomly in a hired car, and it was a delight. No itinerary, no schedule, changing routes at whim. I didn’t get to see a lot of the more visited places, and I sort of regret that, but I spent a lot of time in small villages with ordinary folk and it was a treat. And lawdy, yes, the fish and seafood was magnificent.
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If you visited the South or Ireland and avoided the more touristy places then you did it right. It’s a magnificent place. The people are lovely. The Guinness is the best you can get and the landscape is breathtaking. It would be great with an E bike. Not sure I’d like the idea without that power surge.
Such beautiful trails and no car traffic that I could see. I had an aha moment when hearing the translation of Chichagua. As a Chicagoan, we learned that Chicago was named for the smelly wild onions grown in the prairie. Thanks too for naming the health benefits of beer.
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It was an exceptionally quiet ride. One of the benefits of rails-to-trails is that railroad lines tend to be isolated from vehicle traffic. On the Chichaqua Trail, we had to occasionally cross a gravel road, but traffic wasn’t an issue until we shifted to the more suburban trail.
Iowa has about 1800 miles of paved or hard surface bike trails, and for the most part they do a good job in dealing with vehicle traffic. In my town they’ve recently begun updating bike crossings on busier streets–either installing easy-to-reach (and quick responding) crossing signals or building tunnels/bridges to avoid crossing altogether.
And yeah, Chicago and Chichaqua share the same Algonquin root. It makes you appreciate how far and wide the French voyageurs traveled, and how their relationships with the native peoples were more respectful and cooperative than the other Europeans who came later.
Bikes and beer go together like chicken-fried steak and cream gravy. There are, of course, some jerks who drink too much and get loud, but we don’t see that very often at the bike brew pubs. They’re always friendly and full of happy cyclists.
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What a lovely trip. I don’t think I’d have got on with that old President who thought towns and cities better than forests and native peoples (savages!) though. Stupid white man. With an attitude like that I’m guessing his ancestors were British.
The idea of small brewery pubs with bicycle repair stations and good facilities for riders is a beautiful one. I don’t think we have anything like that. But one day, if you are passing, you must visit me at work because just across the yard is a micro brewery. Beer, swans and generally chilling is a nice thing.
If I’m ever anywhere nearby, you can be absolutely certain I’ll stop and visit, regardless of beer and swans.
Almost makes one want to move to Iowa.
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