Please allow me to be honest with you for a minute. I have a confession to make. I don’t think I have ever looked up the definition of the Midwest. Hell, I didn’t know that there was an official definition, but apparently there is. The Midwest, as defined by the US Census Bureau, is the 12 states that make up the north central US. Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. That be the Midwest. The heartland. Here is Wikipedia’s definition.
65+ million people live in the Midwest. I am here to tell you, after having stayed in 5 of the Midwest states, having visited 6 total on this journey, I have no idea where these 65+ million people live. There just isn’t enough room. These states are full of corn. And soybeans. Yeah, it is that bad. If I never see another field of corn in my life, I will be a happy man. Somehow I don’t think I will be that lucky.
Geography lesson over. On with my continuing journey through the Midwest (aka Marshall’s corn tour 2014).
After my time in Nebraska (not the ‘hard time’ kind of time, but rather ‘time with friends’ kind of time) I headed north for a bit and ended up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for a few nights, where I stayed at the fairgrounds (my first!). Sioux Falls is not a place that I would usually seek out on my journey, but I was there for a reason. I was picking up someone, who is rapidly becoming a very important part of my life, at the airport there to deliver her to Emmetsburg, Iowa. Again, not the kind of town that I would usually choose as a destination, but we had a very good reason to make the trek.
My friend was participating in the annual RAGBRAI festivities. RAGBRAI stands for Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Should really stand for the annual bike tour of Iowa cornfields, but I digress.
RAGBRAI is the oldest, and largest, bike tour of its kind in the world. And it is, um, big. As in a monstrosity. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Turns out it was a very good thing I was only going to be in this madness for a short time, spending rest of the week hiding from the masses of riders. Having started in 1973, RAGBRAI brings together approximately 10,000 bike riders and their supporting crews. Yeah, just a few people make this annual trek.
We targeted Emmetsburg, IA for our destination Monday as it was the starting point for Tuesday’s leg – leg 3 – of the 2014 RAGBRAI. Because of prior commitments in Austin, my friend couldn’t ride all 7 days and had to jump in both feet first on the third day. The original plan was for me to simply deliver her to Emmetsburg and then make myself scarce. But being the flexible guy that I am, I decided to park my house for the night in a local community college’s grass field amongst hundreds of tents. Someone, I think I had the most comfortable bed that night. Just saying…
Tuesday morning I did make myself scarce as I headed towards the eastern side of Iowa (the ride goes from the Missouri River that makes the western border of Iowa to the Mississippi River that makes the eastern border) where I was going to meet up with my friend on Saturday at the end of the ride.
Saturday rolled around and I arrived in the finishing town of Guttenburg, Iowa a few hours before our planned meeting time. This is a good time to bring up something that we usually take for granted – the ability to text or call someone regardless of where you are at. Let me ‘splain something to you – it doesn’t work this way in a RAGBRAI town. Most towns the ride stopped at are on the small side. 3-5,000 inhabitants would be a rough average. Add 10,000 riders and several thousand support personnel, and you have cell systems that just don’t work. They literally come to a screeching halt. So we had no way of communicating, which we figured out quickly that first day in Emmetsburg. The only choice we had was to pick a time and place to meet on Saturday. I had no way of knowing if she was going to be early or late, so I showed up plenty early to enjoy the festivities of the last day and to wait just in case she was early.
The Calm Before the Storm
What a spectacle it was to watch thousands of riders invade the small town of Guttenburg. By the time I arrived at 9:45 in the morning riders were already arriving after making the 60+ mile journey for the day. They must have started really early!
I spent the first few hours walking around, getting something to eat, and watching the bikers dip their tires into the Mississippi. The tradition is to dip your back tire in the Missouri River at the start of the ride, and dip your front tire in the Mississippi River when done. So I picked a shaded area under the lone tree at the dipping point and watched the scene unfold. And I kept an eye out for my friend, which was ‘fun’, especially when huge droves of cyclists would hit the finish at one time. It was made more interesting considering I had no clue what she was wearing that day and, let me tell you, after seeing a few thousand cyclists, they all start to look the same. Fortunately she was paying better attention than I was and spotted me. Whew!
Winnebago Factory – Forest City, Iowa
When I first knew I was going to be in Iowa I really wanted to tour some John Deere factories conveniently located due east of Omaha. Once I found out I was going to be popping up to the north end of the state for RAGBRAI, these plans changed. Fortunately another factory I have wanted to tour for years is located in northern Iowa. Winnebago is one of the larger recreational vehicle manufacturers and is one of those manufacturers that just about everyone has heard of and is a must-see stop for an RV enthusiast while in the area.
Forest City also happened to be the third overnight stop for RAGBRAI, so while I wasn’t actively participating in the activities that evening, I was still smack in the middle of the action. And by action I mean a complete lack of cell service, which makes it incredibly hard to do one’s job when one’s job requires Internet service accessed via cellular data. Oh well! It gave me a chance to do some more spectating of the ongoing RAGBRAI madness.
RAGBRAI RV Camping – Forest City, Iowa
Even though I live in a non-Winnebago product, I was able to stay free for 2 nights at the Winnebago Visitors Center campground. These 20 spots are open on a first-come first-served basis for any rigs wishing to stay there. I called ahead of time inquiring about availability and was assured that I should have no problem getting a spot even with RAGBRAI in town, as most of the associated RVs would be staying elsewhere. Wrong! Fortunately I rolled into Forest City early as the sites rapidly filled up soon after my arrival.
I woke up bright and early the next day to observe the parade of bikes leaving town headed to points east and so that I could take the 9am tour of the Winnebago factory. There was a very good turnout for this tour, with many bicyclists opting to start their ride later so they could see the factory. There were about 50 people on the tour, but Winnebago is equipped to handle these numbers, so we were split into two groups and loaded up in the factory tour buses (modified Winnebago RVs). The next 2 hours were spent being driven around, told about the massive complex, and stopping at a handful of the building to go inside and check things out. Very impressive! Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pics, for ‘safety reasons’. Whatever.
Winnebago Factory – From the Outside Looking In
Pikes Peak State Park – McGregor, Iowa
Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights I stayed at Pikes Peak State Park. Not that Pikes Peak, but rather the one in northeastern Iowa on the Mississippi River, about 15 miles due north of the RAGBRAI finish line. This park was named after Zebulon Pike, the same dude that the ‘little’ mountain in Colorado is named after.
I reserved one of the 77 electric only campsites ahead of time to make sure I would have a convenient to the end of the ride base camp and ended up arriving a day early. Fortunately I was able to snag my assigned spot Thursday night so I didn’t have to move come Friday. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised by the park. Very nice, with great hiking trails and excellent views of the Mississippi from the 500-foot tall bluffs.
Wisconsin was calling me, as I had never been and it was literally right across the river, so I headed over there a couple of times. While I don’t officially count this as a state that I visited as I didn’t overnight there, I did spend a few hours working from a quaint coffee shop/cafe in Prairie du Chien and very much enjoyed listening to the local accents. As in tried to maintain a straight face, cause they talk kinda funny there.
The original plan was to depart Pikes Peak State Park Sunday morning for a farm in Illinois, but my friend wanted a day to just relax after RAGBRAI (imagine that!) so we ended up staying Sunday night as well for some much deserved down time.
Effigy Mounds National Monument – Harpers Ferry, Iowa
One afternoon while staying at Pikes Peak State Park I decided to head a few miles north to explore Effigy Mounds National Monument. Here are over 200 mounds created by American Indians between 850 and 1,400 years ago. Some are burial mounds, while others are effigies in the shape of animals (bears and birds) paying tribute to something unknown.
I ended up hiking the entire north unit, covering 8+ miles and seeing dozens of the mounds. Many of which overlooked the Mississippi with awesome views. Unfortunately the mounds don’t photograph well, or rather, I am not a skilled enough photographer to be able to take great pics of them at ground level. But trust me, they are pretty impressive in person.
One last thing I want to mention about Iowa before we move on to the next state (and no, it doesn’t have anything to do with corn), but I was pleasantly surprised to find out Iowa actually has hills. While most of Iowa (at least the northern portion that I travelled through) is pretty damn flat, right near the Mississippi River there are actual hills. Not mountains by any stretch of the imagination, but decent hills. I was not expecting this. I don’t think my friend was either, as she ended her last day of the bike ride climbing some pretty long hills. It was rough for me too, in my Jeep. OK, maybe not so much…