Leaving the Twin Cities i headed through one dull suburb after another. One of the first was Eagan, which i have a connection to - when i lived in Melbourne (Australia) i worked for a company with a large office in the town. I worked with the Eagan team a fair bit, and at one point even considered trying to get a transfer so i could finally manifest my dream of moving to America.
But for various reasons that didn't pan out. I wonder what my life would've been like, if i'd been able to move to Minnesota 15 years ago. Would i have a green card now? Would i be an American citizen?
Would i have turned into one of those wealthy Minneapolis folks with their front lawns covered in Black Lives Matter, Water Is Life, Love Is Love etc signs, diluting the message of all of these movements by making sure the neighbors know you're covering every conceivable base of wokeness? Or would i have become the probably equally wealthy Harley-riding dude at the bar less than 50km out of town who said i was lucky to have made it out without getting shot, because apparently Minneapolis is a warzone?! People here live in the tightest of bubbles.
Going to that bar was a mistake, because their menu was for shit and just 20 minutes down the road there was a cute little student town with a bagel shop and a café and a hoagie place and this and that. I have good memories of finding decent eats and worthwhile conversation at roadside bars in Texas and Nevada, but Minnesota ain't there. The rural midwest is so different to the rural west. I think the difference is even starker here in the US than it is in Canada. The rural midwest feels more religious, more judgmental, and more dangerous.
Like, who puts Fox News on in the bar? If that's your pub night entertainment i don't even know what to say. Imagine being so hung up on partisan political drama that you can't even let it go when you're out for a drink.
One of the guys said all the lazy people who didn't work during the pandemic are "rich" now because the government gave them so much free money. ("Twelve thousand dollars!") Like, as if those jobless people didn't have any rent or bills to pay, or kids to feed, or any of that. Why even volunteer this information as a talking point, when i explained that i can afford this trip because i saved up for it? Who fucking cares that less fortunate people briefly qualified for government assistance during a goddamn pandemic? Do you want me to pat you on the back for working through the pandemic too, then choosing to buy an expensive motorcyle that you can only ride on weekends instead of a cheap bicycle and 6+ months of freedom? Do you want me to join you in shitting on the folks who can't afford either? What's the angle? Jesus Christ. I miss the dudes who were all "you're living the dream, man" and left it at that. But that's the cultural difference between the west and the midwest, i suppose.
It got a bit more chill when i left that exurb/almost-but-not-quite-rural ring and headed into the farmland proper. Because, fuck, people can't drive in those suburb/exurb regions either. I got honked at by McMansion dwelling nitwits who apparently don't know how to share the road with bicycles and somehow want to blame me for their own incompetence. Like, you don't need to dawdle along furiously tailgating a cyclist, you dumbass, just calmly pass when it's safe, like you would with any other slow-moving vehicle. But then don't blast around me and immediately stop (!) to make a right turn, because then i will have to pass on the inside thanks to you unexpectedly cutting me off. I don't want to rear end you or swerve to the outside and get hit by another car. I swear these people's brains just switch off completely when they see a bicycle, which is kind of ridiculous because there are way more bicycles on the road around this part of Minnesota than anywhere i cycled in Canada so far. People here should be better at sharing the road, not worse.
Fortunately, once i got into the Real Fucking Country, people were better again. People out there understand how to deal with slow-moving vehicles. They know when it's safe to pass, and they won't get all confused and butthurt if you move over and let them pass on the right instead of the left when that's a safer option.
After a couple hours of hilly cornfields and dirt roads, i arrived at Rice Lake, so-named because indigenous people used to gather wild rice here until the settlers drove them away, built a church, plowed the lakeside and planted corn. Then the railroad took a different route and the town died. Now the state has the lake and is trying to rewild some native prairie and oak savanna.
It's a tiny little state park, and it's quite busy (being Saturday night), but they had room for me, and it sure does feel nice to be sleeping in a tent again. Fresh air. The sound of birds, insects and chipmunks. No 4G mobile signal. No internet. It leaves space to breathe.
Tomorrow i will go to Austin and try to find some of the spots in that town that i visited almost exactly 5 years ago, on my brief two week trip from Detroit to San Francisco ahead of a work thing. See why i am not writing.
6:30am, the gun shots started. I think it's much more likely i'll get hit by stray ordnance in the country than in the city. I grew up in the military. I have hung out with drug dealers in very sketchy corners of big cities all over the world. I have never heard so many gunshots in my life as i have camping during hunting season in Manitoba and now Minnesota. This. This is the fucking warzone. Not the city. The shooting doesn't let up for even a minute. It's a miracle the birds even bother trying to find refuge in these protected wetlands.
I was all set to have a long rant about how America is failing its rural communities, because they can't even get a 10-year-old mobile technology (4G/LTE). Then, after passing through Blooming Prairie, a town large enough to have its own downtown pumpkin patch, but apparently not large enough to get fucking internet, i realized my phone had annoyingly auto-tuned itself to AT&T instead of T-Mobile (my data eSIM can use both networks). After manually switching back to the other network i finally got internet again. So instead i will just give you half a rant about it.
Of course the money is there to build a brand new freeway, so even if people who live on dirt roads can't get proper internet from all the major mobile providers, rich people in cars can still drive past them very quickly.
Although, let's be honest, none of the farmers out this neck of the woods look to be struggling. The farmhouses are mansions. Their lawns are vast and manicured. Their American flags are bigger than the square footage of an NYC apartment.
Incidentally, i made the detour to Blooming Prairie primarily because it is a town that sounds like a gay-owned flower shop. The town itself was unremarkable. Also, for the non-Americans in the audience, a pumpkin patch is a sort of seasonal market where they sell pumpkins, squash and other gourds for Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations. Americans also have Christmas tree markets, which are the same thing but for trees. Neither tend to be quite as charming (or as raucous) as European Christmas markets, but you can usually get hot (albeit non-alcoholic) apple cider, corn on the cob and occasionally churros.
Anyway, it was a nice ride. Now i am at B&J Bar and Grill in Austin, Minnesota, where i ate a SpamLT 5 years ago, and where i will eat one again, this time with a pineapple ring, to remind me of the spam, pineapple and peanut butter sandwiches i used to make all those years ago. (Tip: enjoy with baked sweet potato, and plenty of hot sauce.)
This is me being a hypocrite. I passed a couple of turkey barns along the way, and had to choke down my vomit, not just from the stink but from the inhumanity. I try to be a carbon footprint vegan, not an animal rights vegan, but i think anyone who saw hundreds - maybe thousands - of turkeys imprisoned jowl-to-jowl in a barn-shaped cage just waiting to be slaughtered would rethink their Thanksgiving dinner.
Meanwhile, spam is my favorite meat of all. It makes me so happy. Like a BBQ pork bun, it only has good memories for me, and the flavors are divine. I also like the comedy aspect of spam, and the history and stories around it. If anyone interested in food is traveling across America, i highly recommend the spam museum. It's grade-A premium American kitsch. Exactly the thing that makes traveling in this country great. I doubt it's changed since last time i was here, but i'll check it out after lunch anyway.
The sun is shining. I have beer. Life is good.
Goddamnit i fucking hate dew and condensation and all this boggy, soggy bullshit. It's not even raining but my tent is soaked, the grass outside is soaked, the picnic table is soaked, my bike is soaked, everything is wet, and the sun is shining, and it's still wet! Fuck!
Dampness aside, i did find a very nice little camping spot beside the Cedar River in Iowa. And it was blissful to wake up not to the sound of incessant gunshots. I guess all those tough guy weekend hunters are back at their 9 to 5s.
The spam museum was as entertaining second time around as the first time around. Sadly, due to COVID, they didn't have the people walking around giving you tiny little toothpicks with different flavored spams on them. Also i didn't touch anything (several exhibits are interactive to play music or view a video), but that's fine because i'd seen most of it before. A new addition since last time i was there was a picture spread of a British couple who flew all the way to Austin to get married. They even legally changed their middle names to "I love SPAM". Ah, those crazy Brits.
Wait, hang on.
The ride to Iowa was fine. The roads flatten out after leaving Minnesota and it seems there are more flowing rivers and less standing bogs. I found a greenway along the Cedar River which was alternately a very pleasant ride and a complete clusterfuck of large, dynamited chunks of granite that were impossible to cycle over. It was an adventure, fortunately only 4 miles long.
They're rewilding here, too. I saw a sign that said only 0.2% of Iowa is still native oak savanna and prairie, because everything has been plowed for crops. Now they are trying to bring back some of the original flora and fauna.
The sad thing about a huge chunk of Turtle Island being plowed for crops is that a lot of those crops don't even go to feed humans. They go to feed cattle, which is consumed by both humans and other animals that humans breed for their personal entertainment. Just think, if people didn't insist on eating meat and keeping carnivorous pets, so much more of the country could be beautiful again, wild, with the animals free to roam. Sometimes i feel like an alien come to Earth because i don't understand the logic of people who claim to love animals but then eat or enslave them instead of preserving the environments where they can roam free.
The more i travel the more i am certain that freedom to roam is the most important freedom. Borders, fences, property lines, how can anyone (or any animal) truly be free when they can't just... go? It seems so fundamental. Our bodies are designed for mobility, why do people want to imprison themselves? I get that parents might have a temporary biological nesting instinct, but why restrict everyone else's freedom too? It just doesn't make sense to me.
Well, with that on my mind, i suppose i better try to pack up my soaking wet gear. Half an hour in the morning sun hasn't helped much. Today i will either follow the Cedar River south, or cut across to the Volga. We'll see.
Osage has a fantastic greenway, a trail from right in my little campsite by the river heading into the city, well-maintained and easy to ride. I said hello to the housewives walking their dogs, then - just as i was praising the local community for doing such a great job on their riverside trail - bam, a great, big fuck-off Confederate battle flag. Am i in the south already? To quote the kids in the playground where i refilled my water bottles: "daaang".
I would like to take back what i wrote about America failing its rural communities. There are vast swathes of Iowa where neither AT&T nor T-Mobile have any signal at all, never mind 4G. And it's not way out in the backcountry where there are only a couple of ranches. This is in towns with thousands of people. No mobile signal. You can sit directly under two separate cell masts owned by two separate carriers, but if your SIM card is from the carrier whose mast is in the next town over, tough luck, no phone for you. It's appalling.
This was an atom smasher of a day. I am obliterated.
After getting through a town which had a massive Trump/Pence sign right under the smaller "welcome to..." sign, and passing a nearby mansion with great big Fuck Biden signs, i reentered the apolitical (or at least less openly political) countryside. Where there is no signal.
I rode with a near headwind almost all day, and it was exhausting. The sun was hot. There wasn't much shade. I tried some gravel roads, but they were too much, i just didn't have the energy. I resolved to get a big lunch in a big town called New Hampton, but none of the bars or restaurants were open. (Chain fast food places don't count.) I was weak at this point, having only had a banana and a Clif bar since breakfast. I pressed on, because i wanted to save my Ursack food for dinner.
And then i found Lawler, a tiny town with a bar that was open. Nothing vegetarian on the menu aside from fries and salad - which was not what i would call salad, but the midwest version of salad, which is like noodles or potatoes or eggs or random other crap that isn't fresh vegetables mixed with mayonnaise. So i got a vegetable burger. No, not a vege burger. A vegetable burger. That is, a burger with the exotic vegetable accompaniment of tomato, lettuce and onion. The other burgers didn't even come with that! But, i have to say, it was a damn fine burger. I knew it was going to be decent when the menu said "we season our burgers, if you want it unseasoned please say so".
I got it with "broasted potato", which turned out to be thick wedges, and for the first time since living in Australia i got sour cream to dip. In Australia it's practically the national pub dish - wedges with sour cream and Thai sweet chili sauce. Every bar does it that way. But in North America they usually just give you ketchup, or possibly aioli, both of which don't feel right to me. Wedges demand sour cream and/or sweet chili, that's just the rules.
When i finished, i decided to get a homemade cookie to go. And that's when i discovered that one of the other people at the bar had paid for my meal. What? I hadn't even spoken to anyone. So in exchange for the meal i had a conversation with the bartender, telling her more of my story, so she could pass it on to her friend who had quietly paid for my meal before leaving while i was still chowing down.
It was a lovely interaction, and gave me the energy i needed to keep going, despite not having any mobile signal, and therefore also no way to find other campsites as a fallback for my ambitious push to the Volga River.
I deliberately passed through West Union to see if they had signal there, or even an open wifi network, but they did not. So on to Volga. Thankfully, there was indeed a campsite there. Two, in fact! I optimistically chose to go to the equestrian campsite because the human campsite was up the hill and i was schmangled after the marathon ride.
In the first spot i found a lady grooming her horse. I asked if there were tent sites too, and we struck up a conversation. She says she lives and camps alone with her horse, and she likes to come out here, especially during the week when there is no one around. (The whole campsite is just her, me, and a solo canoer.) She is retired and dating a farmer, and comes from a farming family, so we talked a bit about the crops and the rain and this season versus the last.
She suggested i head for the Mississippi where there are more scenic campsites, and where there are lots of quaint old river towns to stop in at. She might be right about that. She said Missouri and Arkansas are beautiful, but so is Tennessee and Kentucky, so it's hard to decide which way would be the nicest route to Florida. She also said they're all more scenic than Iowa.
Poor Iowans, this is the second one (bartender was the first) apologizing for all their corn fields. But, to be honest, i don't mind them much. Corn and soy make pretty colors, and there is something pleasing about seeing so much food on the side of the road. And when you travel slowly, you appreciate the subtleties of the landscape. The different colors of crops in different stages of growth, the small hills, the wildflowers, the oak groves, the creeks and rivers that people on the interstate would never even know were there.
We talked about rewilding Iowa, and she said she signed up for the government program to rewild 10 acres, and it's interesting because you have to do prescribed burns every few years, since that's trying to replicate the lightning-ignited burns that happened before the prairies were developed. After the burn, new seeds germinate, so every year she's getting something different in the plot, it's always a surprise. She said it's fun to watch, because a rainstorm or change in conditions can suddenly cause another new thing to sprout. The unpredictability of nature! It's a joy.
We talked about retirement too. She said she was two years in and it is the greatest thing in the world to have all the time in the day to do whatever you want. She said her advice for me when i finish my sabbatical is to go back to work doing something that makes me feel good, because it's not worth it to feel resentful going into the office each day. She said that her horse trailer seems like a luxury compared to my tent, but compared to most riders who come here on the weekend it's very humble. Basically just room for her horse and a bed, no toilet, no slide outs. She said some people have trailers bigger than her house. I believe it. This, all to make the point that you don't need a lot of money and you don't need a lot of stuff to be happy.
Although, i suppose it's easier to say that when you have a century farm in the family, so presumably a nest egg to fall back on.
Anyway, it was an excellent chat. Exactly the kind of chat i want to have with people, talking about real shit that actually matters in their lives. I'm glad that some people still want to communicate that way in America. I was starting to lose hope.
I mean, i did have a lovely long chat with a guy from Duluth who usually snowbirds, back when i was in the hotel in Richfield. He's been staying in "blue states" since COVID hit because he's older and very worried of getting infected. "I got two Pfizer and one Johnson and Johnson, and will be getting my Pfizer booster soon". He was a nice guy, but very preoccupied with COVID and still fearful of going back into crowds. He said i should think carefully before heading down the Gulf Coast because it's a disaster down there. He was proud of his yellow jeep. I think he might've been gay since he mentioned Minneapolis Pride being a draw for the whole of the midwest, but he might also have just read me for gay (or trans) and tried to drop a hint.
Anyway, Duluth guy was gone when i left a few days ago, and the horse rider, well i'll probably never see her again, but their stories will stay with me, and maybe mine with them. And that's why travel makes the whole world richer. I sometimes hear from cynical people that travelers like me just take, that tourism as a whole is purely a selfish pursuit. But it isn't, because what you bring is a new story. Money and investment might solve some problems in the community, but there wouldn't be any community in the first place without stories. People meeting people, exchanging experiences and thoughts, telling tales of where they've been and what they've done, connecting in some meaningful way, even if it's only for a flash... it leaves a ripple. The butterfly flapped its wings, and who knows what that could inspire? Stories matter.
This humidity is going to kill me. The sun rises at 7am but even 2 hours later, after hanging all my stuff up in the direct sunlight, shit is still wet. This morning i tried wearing flip-flops while i packed, but now i have the problem of dry tent, wet flip-flops, wet feet. It seems the only way to do this is keep on waiting till 10 or 11 when the sun finally starts working like it should, but then half the day is gone. It's such a pain in the ass. I don't know if i can cope if this is what it's like from now on. The water, the bugs, God, next thing there'll be mold to deal with. Country roads, take me back to my arid home.
Okay, i made it to Independence, Iowa. At a bigass "Mexican" restaurant, the kind of place that sells beans, meat and cheese in 27 different configurations, but they all taste the same. I'm not expecting much, but i desperately need the calories and i know these places serve big portions. I was cycling into a headwind yet again today. It's very hard work.
I finally got one bar of 4G at Oelwein, and it inched up as i cycled south on 150. Instead of hoping that wherever i end up tonight has internet, i will post this now.