Friday, August 2, 2002

After the Epiphany of Alma...

...everything changed.

Having little choice but to accept an updated version of the Mississippi River, complements of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we were no longer haunted by the ghosts of rivers past and with only a touch of nagging nostalgia we put Alma and the old river paradigm behind us and headed south once more.

Highway 35, appropriately enough, turned its back on the river south of Alma and headed inland. Out of sight of the river and out of mind, we spent the next 15 straight and level miles working out the details of our riding arrangements: how to accommodate our different styles over the long haul to come.

The first question was who sets the pedaling pace. This is a touchy subject, as anyone who has toured with others knows--rarely do two matched riders find themselves together on the road. I'm in better shape, leg- and lung-wise (Yep, despite my Pall Mall habit--believe it) than most in my age group, at least the few I know. George and I have a similar build, but he is eight years younger and carries even less excess body weight than me. But beyond mere physiology, he and his bicycle form a highly evolved organism with no unnecessary appendages, while I'm still in the awkward pterodactyl stage, you might say, a work in progress, flailing away with incompatible parts, trying to figure out which ones I really need to fly.

And luckily for me, George's legendary road stamina is exceeded only by his patience, so he lets me set the pace even though I know he dislikes riding behind my B.O.B. trailer. For one thing, he can't draft me (as if he would need to). And surely that orange safety pennant constantly flailing in his face must make him feel like a greyhound on the race track. And then there's the metal "slow-moving vehicle" reflective triangle, wedged between the B.O.B. bag and the frame. He must stare at that so much he probably sees it on the ceiling of his tent at night.

And certainly, the whole idea of the B.O.B. trailer itself, with that redundant third wheel, must remind him of some vestigial feature he eliminated in the name of efficiency many generations ago.

But all this is mostly conjecture on my part, based on a handful of offhand comments: George would never actually complain to me about those things.

How often to stop is sometimes an issue on the road, I have found. If you have never cycled cross country, you may think it's easy to stop on a bike--just put your foot down and you're there, right? Well, it's not so simple. Stop too often and you tamper with the zen of cycling--when your body, your bike and your mind are one with the passing landscape and space and time seem to meet at the horizon. This is what some call the spiritual side, valued as a time for introspection and contemplation. And George and I agree that from these periods spring insights, more or less profound, we like to think, which eventually find their way into our writing.

Balanced with this somewhat mystical dimension of biking is the more basic physiological side. Consistent with my food philosophy (see next paragraph), I don't like to stop until my body tells me it's time. George, on the other hand, having the benefit of thousands of more biking miles than me, recommends a more moderate, self-sustaining approach: "Just like eating and drinking before you're hungry or thirsty, rest before you're tired."

All that said there were no disagreements about stops. We seemed to be on the same internal stopping-watch right off the bat, and in the rare out-of-sync situations, George deferred to me.

Somewhat related to stopping is the refueling schedule. Here we had a small philosophical point to resolve. Despite (or because of) my brief but undistinguished stint in high academia at the University of Chicago some years ago, I am more inclined to listen to my body than my intellect when their messages conflict. On a long bike trip, this means, to put it simply, I don't eat until I get hungry. George, on the other hand, relies on intellectual guess-work and strikes preemptively, as it were, before hunger. Hence, the seemingly bottomless bag of peanuts he keeps within reaching distance in his handlebar bag.

Later on in our trip, after we had seen enough dams, we turned eastward into southwest Wisconsin. We had been climbing 400-foot hills all morning in an unforgiving sun and I was in pain and couldn't climb any more, so we stopped in a patch of shade. "Looks like you've bonked," George said. And in a rare didactic lapse, actually suggested I should have had something more than a cup of coffee and a Pall Mall for breakfast. "But I'm not hungry yet," I can't believe I heard myself say.

But at least I learned a useful, if hopefully infrequently, used word from George that morning. "To bonk" is the biking equivalent of running out of gas, when your engine starts consuming itself, which in this case happens to be our body. You simply can't go any further. I also learned how to prevent it. You guessed it: eat before you're hungry. It has a corollary: drink before you're thirsty.

Given George's experience on the road, I had to rethink, then and there, in that oasis of noon shade, my long-held trust in the gnawing stomach as the prime motivator, in this and possibly other of life's endeavors.

There was one more thing we had to work out on that stretch of flat road between Alma and our next campsite in Merrick State Park: it has to do with the contemplative aspect of pedaling long hours on the road, which I talked about before. Biking alone, there is no question. You are pretty much always in that state. But with a friend, there is a natural tendency to break the silence with conversation. The trick is to agree on a balance between the two. Aside from the concern of not knowing George well, my other apprehension about riding together had to do with this. On my previous Des Moines trip, I was alone, so I had plenty of time to think things through. Since I don't think clearly when I'm writing, it has to be mulled over beforehand, and stored somewhere until it gets transmitted. My fear was that a too sociable companion, however interesting and perceptive his conversation, might interrupt my thoughts to the point that they were all jumbled.

And in fact, I did find that George liked to pedal alongside and talk about his worldwide adventures quite often. This was distracting at first, I admit, but I had to ask myself, why are my thoughts more important than his? I soon realized I had nothing to fear from losing the "purity" of my own train of thought. There was plenty of room for George's stories, and they enriched the trip and hopefully this narrative as well.


Writing at home and getting ready to leave for another trip

Thursday, August 1, 2002

Search for the Mighty Missisiipi Ends. Dam Truth Revealed!

"Before 1886, the upper Mississippi still had much of its natural character. Trees filled and covered it. Hundreds of islands, some forming and others being cut away, divided it, dispersing its waters into innumerable side channels and wetlands. During high water, the river spread into vast floodplains, filling lakes and sloughs and covering low-lying prairies. Sandbars, hundreds in the main channel alone, divided the natural river. At low water, these bars were near to or broke the surface. It is not just folklore that people once waded across the river...

"In 1823, the Virginia became the first steamboat to navigate the upper Mississippi from St. Louis to St. Paul. But to steamboat pilots, the natural river presented too many hazards, so... 1866...Congress told the Corps to dig a four-foot channel in the river for steamboat pilots, which the Corps did.

In 1878...Congress told the Corps to dig deeper, to four-and-a-half feet, which the Corps did by building wing dams and closing off the side channels. As railroads began to carry more freight, shipping interests got nervous and...

...Congress told the Corps to dig deeper, which they did to six feet.

But by 1918, the river still was not deep enough. Business and shipping and navigation interests told Congress, and...

...and Congress told the Corps to dig more, to nine feet. But the Corps told Congress that they couldn't dig--now they needed dams.

So...Congress told the Corps to build dams, and they went off and built a few...

...then Congress told the Corps to build More, and they did that, too...

...and by 1940 there were 26 of them from Minneapolis to Alton, just before St. Louis, and the "River" had ceased to exist, except in myth and icon in our minds, and had become a series of "pools," each numbered according to the dam that created it."

George and I gleaned the above selected factoids from one of the ubiquitous information kiosks along the "River," normally reserved for marking historical events having to do with the destruction of Indian villages and so forth. This one, here in Alma, Wis., has maps and brochures explaining to tourists, in simple language, the fine work the Corps has done in making the river safe for navigation. Directly behind the kiosk is dam No. 4.

And here at Lock and Dam No. 4 is where I announce to George that I consider our search for the elusive "River" to have ended in failure, because "it just ain't here any more, and hasn't been for my lifetime or yours. We may as well be looking for the Holy Grail."

Each sequentially-numbered pool, to a greater or lesser degree, I suppose, retains some semblance of its pre-tampering state. The success of our failure to locate the river of the National Genetic Memory meandering somewhere among the backwaters, lakes, sloughs and wetlands we have seen, some artificial, some not, is in the revelation, the ability to see what is truly there rather than our preconceived notion of it. This is the challenge, and the reward, of travel.

We arrived at Alma just in time to witness probably the most action you'll ever see at a dam, except in times of flooding disasters--a barge being locked through. We had just finished the 15-mile ride from Pepin, after descending from the bluffs, which had been flat and lacking in novelty except for the stop we made at the Nelson Cheese Factory where we sat out front by the door sweating and chewing cheese curds, bread crumbs and various other edibles with unmatched utensils littering our bench site, providing a curious spectacle, no doubt, for the steady stream of Wisconsin citizenry, young and old, visiting the Factory Store in search of fine cheeses. I left with half a pound of Farmer's Cheese with Peppers, and five small rolls, for a future meal.

Riding from the Cheese Factory store to Alma we had passed through a mile or so of another spectacular (to me) wetland. Once more, I had marveled out loud to George that these patches of primeval nature could survive and thrive, coexisting with the Corps, working its evil so near. George did not appear impressed with the view or my marvelings. I was suspicious he knew more than me about the real "nature" of these swamps, since I have found him to be more prescient than me in these and other matters.

My suspicions were not unfounded, for among the other rah-rah-Corps brochures here at the Dam No. 4 information kiosk was one produced, no doubt, by its Eco-Arm labeled "Natural Resources on the River." From it we learned that the Corps had recently realized, in retrospect, that its activities the last 125 years or so may have had some effect on the natural environment along the river, and it was now attempting to "mimic nature to create thousands of acres of wetland plants in the navigation pools by lowering some pools two feet for thirty days during late spring or earlier summer."

With this revelation I realized that those wetlands over which I had waxed poetic and contemplative were in fact created for me! I had been duped by the Army Corps gone Green!

Well, what was I to make of this information? Corps good or Corps bad? Hard to call it "greenwashing" because the evidence of its success was right before my eyes. On the other hand, there's been a lot of water over the dams, so to speak, since that first one, and I could invoke my urban cynicism, which comes in handy when condemning something I know little about, and say these Green-Corps wetlands are tokenism, too little too late, created for PR purposes near heavily-traveled roads within gawking distance of tourists.

George didn't have the answer either, so let's leave it at that for now. But if anyone has any insight or opinions or even facts about this, email me at and fill me in.

Jim Redd

Not really on the road anymore, but will be soon.