Dubuque was kind of gray and overcast when I woke up around 7, packed by stuff, swallowed some granola bars, an apple, and an orange, and checked out of the Canfield Hotel. I wasn’t quite sure what this day would bring, I wasn’t even sure how to get out of town, so I headed towards the rising sun that keep poking it’s head out from behind the clouds and down to the river. On the way, I passed through what banner’s hung along the street proclaimed to be the historic millwork district, which was a collection of old large red brick factories, most of which were now owned by the window and door manufacturer Jeldwen. Several of the large old buildings sat empty, with the windows and doors brook out.
One had the old fading and bent sign composed of three upside down yellow triangles merged into a brown circular symbol for a nuclear fallout shelter attached next to an open door into the building. Inside the building was another sign attached next to another interior door, that would lead the panicked folks deeper into the heart of the building where Dubuques residents were duped into believing they would be safe from nuclear fallout. It was suprising to see that after over 40 years, the signs were still up and on display. I wondered if the shelter itself was still stocked with the red and white hard candy that I remember had been stockpiled in cardboard drums packed the sweet treats that came out of the shelter that used to exist in the basement of the catholic school I went to as a kid.
Passing through the district the sweet smell of sawdust filled the air. And all the buildings where sawing and sanding of the sash was being done were connected to a large centralized sawdust collection system, by a tangled series of large baby blue conduits that were strung from buildings across the streets, and routed to the multiple matching baby blue large steel cyclones that spun the sawdust filled air that drew a vacuumed through the pipes to carry the waste material away and deposit it in large hoppers and bins.
It was hard to leave the district, as there was something about the massive old buildings that drew me in, maybe it was the smell of sawdust, maybe it was memories of growing up in a town and region that was dominated by millwork companies, and my summer spent working in one of them, or perhaps it was just the look of the old brick buildings – each one presented another opportunity for an interesting picture highlighted from the rising sun that would lay down an intriticate series of lights and shadows . But time was passing and I moved on down towards the river, hoping to pick up a trail or road back up river.
There I passed by what must have been a large old power plant with two short and stubby, rusty stacks protruding upwards towards the diluting winds. There was a number barge unloading facilities located adjacent to the flood dike installed to keep the area safe from the river. Commodities offloaded included the winter driver’s friend – road salt, and the crop growing farmers friend – liquid fertilizer. And further out near the river include the gamblers friend – the “river boat” casino. I didn’t venture further down near the river because it seemed like the roads dead-ended there.
So I found a bike path, that looked like it might take me up river and started following it, but the path also came to a dead end across from a large screen that had been installed at the end of a large culvert that carried the water from the Bee Branch Creek from where it had been diverted under the road to drop it into the canal that lead to the lift station that would pump the creek up and over the dike and into the mighty Mississippi, where it could flow relatively free by gravity once again to the Gulf of Mexico. The screen was installed to remove the logs and sticks, and other debris (probably plastic bags, aluminum cans, and other trash) that naturally find their way into creeks, but create havoc on the unnatural pumps needed to lift the water up and over the manmade dike. The screen was clogged with the debris as there was a couple of feet of head loss as the water squeezed its way through the trash.
Near the trash screen, I found a map alongside the trail that showed a map of the City of Dubuque’s bike trail system, and there was trail called the Mississippi River Trail located back further away from the river, so I headed back into to town to try and find it. Along the way I passed an old interesting red brick district that was more religious than industrious in nature. It consisted of an old high steepled large church, probably some old schools, and some dormitory type buildings. Housed in one of the buildings now was the Maria House – Transitional Housing for Women and Children. Across the street from that building was the Dubuque Food Pantry. I watched one older gentlemen walk up to the Pantry and then walk away as it must not have been open yet. Some more rundown looking housing in what likely used to be rather nice homes was located in the same neighborhood, conveniently located to provide a steady source of clients to the two charities.
I wondered if there were food pantries and women and children’s transitional housing back in the days when the millwork district and religious district were booming or if they are a new phenomenon that comes about because of people’s failures to practice their religion and the work ethic that comes with it. My guess was they have always been with us as they seem to be a symptom of the corporate system designed to prey on using the people and the planet as resources to make a profit, and our churches are the tools to preach prophetic words to the people to keeping them toiling in this world in hopes of a better life in the next.
As I progressed further into town, I asked a passing woman where Main Street was (as that is where the map showed the bike trail) and she directed me further away from the river and up a hill. I found Main street and started to attempt to pedal up the large hill it lead up to provide access to the grand old castle type housing perched high upon the hill, but decided if that is where the bike trail was, I wasn’t going and headed back down towards the river. I saw a mailman walking his route and decided to ask him if he knew of a bike trail. He did and he told me to head back towards the river a few block and I would run into it. So I did, and I did. Finding the trail I though was my ticket out of Dubuque, but let me passed more industry – a metal stamping company was one facility where the large metallic bangs could heard as the large presses stamped out new metal parts of various sorts.
Then I passed another large behemoth of what appeared to be another abandoned factory. A historic sign along the trail informed me that it was the old Dubuque Brewing and Malting Company.
It was once one of the five breweries that operated in Dubuque around the turn of the 19th Century. The sign touted all the new technologies used by the grand old brewery like using refrigeration to keep the brews cold for its customers, and how they drilled their well-used to provide spring brewing water deeper than usual to make sure the water would remain pure. But with the onset of prohibition, the brewer met it’s demise and was never really used for a brewery again. The owners took a loss on their investment, but likely carried away a profit from the brews they poored on the laborers who worked for them and the nearby mills.
So I finally tore myself away from the attractions of Dubuque and headed off down the trail out of Dubuque ready to put some miles on my tires. But shortly down the trail I came to tunnel under the overhead road that was barricaded with an orange warning sign saying “Trail Closed”. I went around the trail and barricade as I wasn’t sure where else to go and passed a walker how informed me the trail and bridge downstream were open and you could get through. So I headed on, and then a truck with flashing yellow lights blazing and a man wearing a bright orange vest walking along in front of it painting new yellow dividing lines down the middle of the new asphalt trail came at me. I expected to be scolded by the workers for ignoring their barricade, but instead they kept up their business, and I simply rode off the trail to get around them and continued up and over the new fancy bridge that had been installed to get the trail users up and over the 4 lane highway that led out of town
After the bridge, I came to a large pond on the side of the trail with dozens of youth strung out along it shore line with fishing poles in hand. A harried looking woman was walking along the shoreline, apparently attempting to make what might be their first and only fishing attempts successful. I over heard her ask one of the students where his bobber was, and when he replied he didn’t know she pointed it out to him and told him to get it on the line if he had any hopes of catching a fish. More constructin workers blocked the trail again as they stood around watching cement being poured for the finishing touches being applied to the new outhouse being built alongside the trail. And then moving on down the trail, I came to a large map of the trail system and a fee box and learned from another group of passing teachers, trying to keep another group of younger students under control as they came back from a walking expedition up the trail, that the trail veered even farther away from the river and was not where I wanted to go on that day.
So I pulled off the trail and headed down the four lane highway out of town, and noticed another group of students plying the waters of the ponds with nets, and then carrying the netted contents back to some adults who must have been trying to help them identify and any poor aquatic life forms that had been captured in the nets. Perhaps it was the cynical nature that I was developing on my own adventure that brought out my worry that these activities – a onetime fishing adventure with multitudes of other kids all throwing out a line into what looked more like a storm water pond than a lake, or scooping out life from its home just so we could identify it, was helping the kids to learn to respect and appreciate nature, or if it was helping them learn to treat it as a resource to use for their entertainment purposes.
Shortly down the four lane unshouldered road, I came across a county road that turned off to the east and back towards the river and I followed it hoping to find the elusive Great River Road that from the map I had appeared to head of that way somewhere. This road seemed to head out to the rural areas, away from the City, but then I came across another large and modern industrial comlex, and from the large sign out front and water tower in the background learned this was another John Deer complex. I passed by this facility, hoping to get away from industry for a while, and I neared the crest of a large and winding hill through the tree lined valley up to the ridge top, I saw a sign at the sign on the side of the road adjacent to a beaten down gravel road through the woods that indicated it was an access road for John Deer contractors, and then a short distance later I came to a gated blacktop road with warning sign proclaiming that that road led to the “John Deer Restricted Area. No Admittance”. I started to wonder what top secret activities John Deer was up to and wondered if a the passing Cadillac Escape SUV with black tinted windows might be carrying some top secret John Deer operatives to the secret location on the top of the hill to design some new high tech nuclear tractor or something.
But as I climbed the ridge top, I learned that the heavy equipment sounds I started hearing were coming from the construction activities that John Deer was involved with in building what must be another new large industrial complex on the top of the hill. From a distance I could see earthmoving equipment going to work clearing and grading what was probably a couple hundred acre site on the ridge top. I kept peddling hoping to finally get away, and as I did the view from the top of the ridge became quite amazing, and a short distance down the road the wealthy folks from the industries behind me must have agreed as there were several large mansions type complexes that could be seen further off to the east where the ridge top met the Mississippi River valley below where the homes were strung out along the bluff top.
Further inland along the ridgetop road I was following were more modest homes, probably catering to the lower management or higher paid factory worker who might have a second imcome to help pay for the mortgage cost. Signs for the lots that were still available advertised “one acres lots with hundreds of trees and only 5 minutes from the John Deer Plant”. Otherwise the hills and valleys along the ridge top road were filled with farmland, some large farms and some small farms and few trees. I wondered what the land looked like before it was cleared for farming. And while I was wondering this I passed a long young woman out for a jog up and down the hills and thought she should find a flatter place to jog, and then shortly after that a redish mut came running out to me from the side of the barking and coming with in a few feet of my ankle, which it looked like he had thoughts of biting into. I used my calming dog voice technique once again to charm this devourer of ankles to back off.
I passed a farmer driving a red tractor pulling a green John Deer rack and placing the hay in his wagon. I wondered if it was difficult to get by with a non-John Deer tractor in the heart of John Deer country. There were more cows and barns, and then a heard of heifers came running out to greet me as I passed nearby their fenced in enclosure. And across from that, a heard of barn cats stopped their eating and frolicking outside the barn to slink down and watch me pass. And then as I passed more farms where the cows were confined to feed lots, while their calves had been removed from them and fed formula so we could have their milk where confined to individual white plastic Quonset huts, and where goats were confined to a large confinement shed so they could be fed feed brought in from the nearby fields last year so that goats could fight their way to eat the old feed from the troughs located outside the huts.
I began to think about the crazy farming systems that seem to be designed to sell farmers expensive equipment and infrastructure so they can feed their critters who can in turn feed us. Why not simply let the critters get out on the fields to feed themselves? I bet the critters would be happier, and it probably would mean less work for the farmers, but perhaps the downfall is that the equipment vendors would have to take a cut in profits? Or perhaps an even more sensible option might be to do like the native folks to the land used to do, and learn to eat the native plants and animals, and do away with all the foreign plants and critters that the immigrants brought with them. But then the huge agricultural industries: like the seed companies that genetically modified and patented seed to make it herbicide ready; and the herbicide companies that help to keep the mono-crop practices possible; and the fertilizer companies that making farming unsustainably sustainable as long as we have a cheap source of petroleum to convert to fertilizer – might not be able to profit if we didn’t keep the whole crazy process going. So I tried to put those thoughts out of my mind, which is something I needed to do more and more frequently and I spend too much time biking up and down the river. I moved on, passed a collection of homes and waved back at a young boy who was playing catch with his mother and tried not to fall off my biking while waving and shifting gears to climb the hill that started as I passed their house.
I stopped to take a break in Sherrill at the community park, a town with two churches – the Catholics had the taller steeple than the Lutherans. And then it was back to the ridge top, where I began to feel like I was in the Carpenter song – On Top of the World – where the brother and sister Carpenter’s sing “I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation, la la la la la”, and noticed that most of the attractive land with trees or where the soil wasn’t tilled up and the natural grasses were allowed to grow were marked with “No Trespassing” signs – a constant reminder on the trip of the importance that property rights have played in building this American dream of ours. If you own the property, you control the resources, and if you control the resources, you are king of the land – as represented in some of the larger finer homes that I saw constructed at the high points of the land I was passing through. I also passed by some forested land that was being cleared and regarded – either to make way for more farm land – or to develop for more homes. For when there is money to be made by putting more land into production or profit from development, the trees must come down.
And at the ultimate pinnacle some 585’ above the Mississippi River below I reached the hamlet of Balltown, which must have been named for the baseball field I saw tucked away at the side of town, I stopped at the Lions Club Park to enjoy the view, take a break, and quickly explore the cemetery that was built at the turn of the century. And then I stopped at the overlook on the way out of town, touted as one of the most scenic places in Iowa – and so far I would have to agree with the claim. From the overlook the rolling country side below could be seen in all it’s slender, the rolling farms, the tree lined valleys, the Mississippi River at the bottom, and then the Wisconsin coutry side that seemed to almost mirrow the Iowa countryside. And it the very far distance, I could see the mound outside of Platteville with the distinctive “M” whitewashed on it, that I had passed the week before on my way down river on the Wisconsin side.
And then it was back to the road, and what a road it was. This was some of the best biking road I had come across on the trip. It was a concrete road with at least five foot wide concrete shoulders that were in excellent condition, no cracks, no spaling concrete, no will bouncing gravel kicked back on the shoulder, and no bone jarring potholes to watch out for on the 30 mile per hour hill descents. So climbs up and then down the many hills was almost pure pleasure. But the high hills, and strong head winds reminded me that the land and the wind would dictate my progress, no matter how fast or slow I wanted to go, or where I wanted to go, the up and down and side to side turns would set the pace for me. I was not in control, but the topography was. And then I met another crew out painting fresh traffic lines on this finest of roads. I wondered how the county could afford to have built and then maintained such a fine road that did not seem to be used much – which on that day I greatly appreciated.
And then it was time for more inspiration, so as I passed through the town simply named Grotto, I decided to take a short detour up the hill into the town to see the church poised at the top of the hillside town. Entering the town proper, I was greeted by two extremely large men who were sitting next to road into town. One man was sitting in his older model golf cart, and the other was sitting on the steps that lead down to the sidewalk next to the street – he had an oxygen line leading up to his nose to help him breath. One man asked if I was out to see the sites and I replied that I was, and not thinking also mentioned that I was also “getting some exercise in the process”. But then perhaps subconsciously as a way to cover up for what may have been an insult to the two extremely obese gentlemen I tried to cover me tracks by saying “perhaps too much exercise”. As I stopped to admire the church, I could hear bits of the two men’s conversation. Unfortunately the only bit that jumped out at me was how about every other sentence included the use of the “f” word either at the beginning, middle, or end, or sometimes all three places, of the sentence. Further up the hill, there was indeed a grotto carved into the limestone cliff above the town. The grotto was apparently in honor of the Virgin Mary – and I wondered if there was a special devotion to the Virgin in this part of the State as I had seen many statutes of Mary stuck in the besides of many of the homes I had passed. These mostly large-fawned homes I passed had to mow around a plastic or concrete image of Mary. Although the large lawns looked nice, I wondered how much time it took to mow them – and I did see a number of folks out mowing on that day – and I wondered how much water they had to pump from way down in the groundwater table probably hundreds of feet below the ridge top homes to keep the lawns green and lush year round.
Eventually the road began dropping down into some lower valleys that contained a small stream, and then it passed down in the Mesquite River Valley. The River was flowing full, but appeared to have dropped back down into it’s river banks. Evidence of recent flooding could still be seen in the farm fields located in its floodplain. The river still flooded the fields, despite the small dikes that had been build to keep it from completely overflowing the fields as it likely did in the past. The river was extremely brown, likely as a result of all the valuable sediment being washed off the steep farm fields that feed the river. And then I was back on Highway 52 and close to Guttenburg. I hoped my 38 mile journey for the day would end here, as the sky was getting darker, I was hungry and tired, and I wasn’t aware of anywhere else nearby that might have an inn to house a weary traveler. I stopped at the grocery store and restocked some supplies, bypassed some a more rundown looking motel on the way into town and peddled on towards the river in hopes of finding a more hospital place and finally found one in the Landing, and old limestone building next to the river that looked quite welcoming. If feared such a nice looking place would be out of my price range, full, or not hospitable to biker types. But when I entered the unoccupied lobby, called the number listed on the card next to the phone on the desk, and opened the brochue and found a low price of about $45 dollars listed for a room, was quite glad to find that the gentleman who came to register me was most welcoming and that he had a room. I also found out there was a laundry mat a few blocks away, so took a quick shower, hung my two shirts that were still wet from my sink laundering the day before up to dry and headed to the laundry mat.
I washed my cloths, and talked to my friend Steve and my wife Kitty on the phone to update them on my trips, then loaded the cloths into the drier. I noticed the washer water didn’t shut off when the cycle was done, but pulled my cloths and through them in the dryer, but assumed the water would shut off eventually. I walked to the Pizza place in town, had a taco salad and the remaining can of non-diet Barqs root beer that had not been consumed by the Brownie Troup how had a party in the back room before I arrived, conversed some with the woman running the place about the 1984 book I was reading – she said the author had gotten it right, he just was off on the year. We also discussed the population of the town – which she figured was a couple thousand, and it doubles in the summer with all the folks coming to spend time on the river. She also mentioned there were a couple small manufacturing facilities in town, a hospital, and a care center for disabled that provide work for the year round residents.
I headed back to the laundry mat and found the washer I had used about to over flow. I looked around trying to find a phone number to call someone about the soon to over flow washer, when an older gentlemen came in. Since he didn’t have any laundry, I assumed he was the owner there to close up for the night, but he said he was just the closer. He tried calling the owner, but couldn’t get his cell phone to work, so gave me the number and I was able to reach the owner who said he would be right down. In the meantime, I found some empty laundry jugs in the garbage and started bailing the washer to avoid and overflow. The closing man opened one of the back rooms and brought out a bucket with a bailing cup, as apparently this was a regular occurrence. We bailed, and chatted while waiting for the owner. The man who was probably nearing 80 had lived into most of his life, got married in the 50’s and worked as a maintenance man at various places in town and in Dubuque. The owner arrived, and finally shut the water off by used the tried and true method of tipping the washer forward and then slamming it back down to dislodge the lime that was keeping the water valve from sealing completely.