Apart from the reindeer, the initial transition into Indiana was seamless – the corn was nothing new. It wasn’t until we were 30 or so miles in that corn fields turned into tidy garden plots, tractors into horse drawn buggies. Every other house had laundry flapping in the wind, the muted colors of children’s overalls, women’s dresses, and ill-fitted pants the same on every line – one size fits all.
Welcome to Amish Country.
Never before had we been able to pass anything else on the road. Trotting along the shoulders, the horses hooves slowly tear up the asphalt, adding another obstacle to their already prolific excrement. Children ride in buggies without adults, innocent to the horrors of the DMV as they ogle at our own odd arrangement (it’s all relative). Bicycles are neatly propped along the sides of houses, the rack space limited. Many cyclists passed us on the road, most of them beardless young men sporting stocking caps. Young children playing ball in the front yard, all the girls tucked behind their little white bonnets. I felt like I had travelled back through time.
The best part about it all, everyone seemed eager to wave back.
After a quick ride through the very touristy Shipshewana, we stopped at the Amish/Mennonite museum, excited to learn the reason behind the mysterious lack of mustaches.
A not-so-quick history/my personal opinion lesson:
The Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterites are all Anabaptists, meaning they all hold the belief that adults should voluntarily choose to be baptized. The state, however, was all for involuntary infant baptism, and was unsurprisingly intolerant and harsh toward these ‘radicals.’ So the Anabaptists made their way to the Americas to voluntarily baptize in peace. No longer busy resisting a common enemy, the Anabaptists struggled to find common grounds amongst themselves and split into many subgroups, eventually evolving into the main three: Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite.
To use the same metaphor chosen by the museum, the Amish are masters at building fences, keeping their communities together and the rest of the ‘world’ out. They are only allowed to engage in things that simultaneously strengthen the community and bring them closer to god; everything else is forbidden. This is where a lot of the discrepancies occur – not everyone agrees on what is considered a distraction. However, the various subgroups of the Amish all seem to agree that formal education (because ignorance is bliss), electricity (because the wires will connect them to the world), cars (because people will travel too far from home), drinking (because it’s obvious), and music (because…I’m honestly not sure why) are serious no-no’s. Simplicity, in all sense of the word, seems to be a strong theme.
However (this is a big however), the Amish have been known to bend their own rules. While they are not allowed to drive a car themselves, they are allowed to be driven around in a car by a non-Amish individual! Same goes with other electronics. I can’t decide if this is mere laziness or selfishness (Hopefully none of them are employing someone to read this post…). The museum also used an example of a local cheese factory, that, in order to continue selling their cheese to the public, had to begin using some kind of electric machine to insure the quality of their product. Big question here, “Does cheese bring us closer to god?” They must have specialized in swiss – the holiest cheese – because their answer was a big, “yes!”
There are also a lot of strict rules regarding personal appearances. Since they value the community over the individual, everyone must dress the same – modest and simple, with a lot of rules. All the little boys wear overalls, married women aren’t allowed to wear buttons, and married men must grow out their mustache-less beards.
The reason behind the lack of mustaches is because mustaches were popular during the second world war (think Hitler) and therefore, became linked with war and violence. I wonder if people would stop yelling rude comments out of the safety of their vehicles if Ben shaved his mustache….
According the the museum, the Amish population is on the rise. How is this possible, one might think, since they spend their lives keeping everyone out? Still unsure? Two words: birth, control. Or lack there-of really. One wonders if this is really a sustainable lifestyle…you can only build so many fences.
Also, at the ripe age of 16, young Amish boys and girls are allowed to have their Rumspringa, a two year free pass to do whatever they want before they voluntarily choose to never do it again. The museum said the return rate was around 90%, probably because after 16 years of estrangement from the “world,” living a “worldly” life might seem a little, for lack of a better word, strange.
The Mennonites are a group that split away from the Amish early on, disagreeing with the strict isolation and simplicity so strongly desired by the Amish. Although they do share similar core religious beliefs, they do not think engaging with the “world” brings them farther from god. Mennonites dress in normal clothes, use electricity, drive cars, and listen to music – in other words, they chose not to build any more fences. In my opinion, this seems a lot more simple.
The museum did not talk about the Hutterites at all, beyond ensuring us that they existed. I’m not sure I was convinced. Just kidding!
After the museum, we headed over to Rise n’ Roll bakery, recommended by our hosts for the night, to get a taste of “Amish crack” (aka donuts). I’m not sure who keeps up the website… Unfortunately, they were out of fresh donuts, so we strapped a half-dozen frozen caramel cinnamon donuts to the back of my bike hoping they would defrost by the time we arrived at our host’s house in Goshen, IN.
Thankfully they did, and it was out of politeness that we did not eat the whole box in one sitting, which is pretty astonishing considering the nature of crack, Amish or not.
Our hosts, Tari and her son Nick. After feasting on fajitas, we rode over to Chief’s Ice Cream for a delicious dessert (the donuts leave you wanting more), than back to the house to discuss HeLa cells and the cellphone/popcorn myth.
The next morning, we headed out to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, stopping at Notre Dame in South Bend, on the way.
We snuck into a primitive campsite tucked out of sight beneath the trees (surprisingly, there was no sand to be seen), and feasted on cucumbers with crackers and triple creme cheese, cherries, wine, and watermelon – a delicious birthday dinner!
Eager to see some dunes, we headed out to the lakeshore with high hopes. Unfortunately, the dunes were further up the eastern side of the beach, and we, of course, were headed west. Whoops!
As we closed in to Chicago, cornfields and gardens turned to tightly fenced backyards, tractors and buggies to minivan traffic jams – a corn-eater metropolis.
We were lucky to have discovered a series of bike trails that would take us from the Dunes all the way into Chicago without having to fear being hit by a careless cell-phone driver. Yes, it’s still legal out here.
We popped off the trail to fuel up on Mexican food, which we haven’t had since….I cant even remember. Apparently Chicago is known for having good Mexican food. As we munched on tacos and fajitas, a man with his wife and daughter walked in and promptly started asking about our bikes. After a full meal of across-table-talking, the man took care of our bill in return for a tour of our bicycles. We were more than happy to comply.
***We decided to write about Chicago separately – check back for Ben’s post about the Windy City soon!***
Riding out of Chicago was much worse than riding in, as it always is around big cities. Despite having hopped on the Grand Illinois Trail, which will take us all the way across the state from Chicago to Moline on a series of canal-ways, we were still riding through urban areas for at least 40 miles.
We cut our day short after discovering a free campground off the trail, exhausted from a day’s worth of exceedingly hot urban riding.
Next morning, we arrived in Morris with more than enough time for a second breakfast. We quickly stopped by the post office to pick up our mail drop (it took a lot longer trying to fit everything into our bags), and then headed over to the local diner to grab a bite. Just as we were leaving, a couple asked if they could take our picture for the local newspaper. It’s quite possible we’re famous in Morris, IL.
We continued on the GIT, stopping for lunch just in time to see a 170+ vintage tractors drive by on their way to their show!
As we packed up our food to hit the road, I noticed I had a flat. The first one since Troy, NY.
3 flat tires later, I was ready to call it a day, so we pulled off into a city park in Spring Valley to awkwardly loiter and watch the baseball game before we felt comfortable setting up our stealth camp in the darkness. Luckily, we just traded out the interior of our tent, from solid to mesh, due to the increasing heat. This was our first night sleeping in the all mesh interior, and it proved itself to be highly stealthy. 3 cop cars rolled by without seeing us, and that was just when we were awake.
Like usual, stealth camping means incredibly early mornings, and as usual, I was not a happy camper. The gravel “highway” we took 10 miles down to breakfast, a mismatch of giant boulders and sand traps, didn’t do anything to improve my mood. It wasn’t till after some huevos rancheros, made by a darling older lady who was so excited to tell her kids about us (but decided not to once she realized they would probably be inspired to embark on a similar trip), that I was starting to feel remotely awake. We were back on the trail at 7am.
We stopped for lunch at one of the old locks, the resting place of one of Ben’s riding gloves, taken from us by a gust of wind. The chocolate covered peanut-butter filled pretzels, given to us by Ben’s sister Marea, had reformed into a giant block. It didn’t stop them from being devoured, however.
We encountered another touring cyclist, also headed west, at an information center along the trail. Turns out, Ryan was also planning on visiting the Badlands/Black Hills, so we talked maps for a while before wishing each other luck and hoping to run into each other somewhere in South Dakota.
Of course we ran into him again much earlier. That very night, in fact. After stopping in town for some beers and a giant sandwich, we pulled off onto one of the locks, glad to see a tent was already pitched. We continued our previous conversation of maps and bikes, and provided some duct tape for some quick pannier-mending. As the sun was going down, two locals drove by with fresh picked raspberries promised to Ryan before we had arrived. One sporting a tie-dyed t-shirt with a giant mushroom in the center and both obviously stoned, we talked about cornfield parties and the impossibility of growing dill, all of our hands stained from the juicy wild raspberries by the time they walked off into the sunset.
Next day was a short ride into Moline, 1 of the 5 Quad Cities (confusing, right?) where we hung out at Starbucks (we both have gift cards!), and waited for the taco ride to begin.
Um, taco ride? Yes, taco ride. Our host in Davenport goes on a ride with some of his biker buddies every Wednesday, and tonight was taco night. We met our host and his pals in front of the Celebration Belle, and rode along the eastern side of the Mississippi 10 miles or so to a dive bar with $1 beef tacos. Sure beats the mashed potato and canned sardine tacos we’ve been having….
Nothing says a good yield like a John Deere harvester.
After we managed to eat more tacos than everyone else, we headed back to the cars, loaded our bikes in Dustin’s van, and crossed over the Mississippi river one last time into Davenport, IA. By the way, have you heard of Ragbrai?
Dustin ran a printing business out of the comfort of his own home. Two apartments turned into one, one of which lacked a front door and opened up into the hallway, every wall was adorned with past printing jobs. Our room had two giant wedding advertisements, the two beautiful brides and a cartoon roller derby cut out watching over us while we slept.
Dustin also had a multi-color silk screening press.
The next morning we were both moving a little slower than usual, having had trouble sleeping through the heat. We didn’t get on the road till 11, with 70 miles to go.
As soon as we left Davenport, we were once again fully submerged in corn. When we first entered the corn belt long ago in Ohio, the corn was hardly up to our ankles. By now, the corn was well past our knees. For miles and miles the landscape remained the same – cornfield after cornfield after cornfield. The only other humans we would see were the occasional farmers driving their tractors. Otherwise it was just us and the corn. The lack of population meant the roads were mere gravel pathways, another setback to miles and miles of monotony. Also, who started the rumor that Iowa was flat?
With all the corn just up to our knees, we quickly noticed Iowa seemed to lack any trees. We also quickly learned that any patch of trees we did see meant a state park, and thankfully that was our destination.
Ben looking sad, probably because he’s tired of corn.
Next day we headed into Cedar Rapids, a town we were told was a smaller version of Portland………..not so much. We managed to spend our whole afternoon drinking beers at a bar and writing posts, as an older motorcyclist pumped us up about riding through South Dakota. Unfortunately we still had a lot more corn to sort through…
We finished our day a little short in the town of Brandon, home of Iowa’s largest frying pan. The one good thing about Iowa is that most of the county parks have free camping and the state parks are around $9-11 a night.
Remember a while back when I joked about us drawing detailed little maps of Illinois and Iowa in the Troy Public Library in New York? Well, Ben had planned out Iowa to the day, and our time spent drinking in Cedar Rapids had torn those plans to bits. Because neither of us wanted to re-plan the rest of Iowa, we decided to take another short day to put us back on track. So we took our time making frequent stops to pick wild raspberries. By the time we reached Waterloo, not only had I gotten raspberry juice all over my jacket (the thorns ripped tiny holes in the bag!), but my entire body was covered in raspberry bush scratches. After a few hours in a coffee shop, we acquired some cookies ‘n’ cream and feasted on wild raspberry covered ice cream in the park. Yumm!
We were lucky to find a spot on a Saturday at the nearest state park, and even luckier to have avoided the fee. As Ben wandered through town to find an ATM (in order to pay in case we were approached), he got caught up at a bicycle bar in the rain. Bummer.
Another day, a lot more corn, and not much else to say.
We stopped at another tree haven state park and ran into a tandem couple riding from Washington to New York.
The next day was super hot and super windy, the perfect excuse for an ice cream break. As we headed toward the grocery store, we ran into a ex-racer and his kids, all on bikes and full of questions. Later, he found Ben and I in the store and after asking if we were sponsored, handed us $20. It’s amazing how far $20 can go when you’re riding your bicycle. Thank you!
After another night at yet another state park, we pushed our way through tough winds to Storm Lake. After spending a few hours drinking smoothies and eating a sandwich called “The Locomotive,” we headed to the first campsite we’ve paid for in a while, and all because they had keycards for the bathrooms. After setting up camp and eating a quick dinner, we headed over to a local bar to catch game 4 of the basketball Finals.
As we headed back to the coffee shop for breakfast, we passed through the arboretum historical park – a park along the lake that has a wide variety of trees grown from seeds taken from various historical sites/occasions. While munching on bagels, the barista told me, “better get your biking done quick! It’s gonna rain in an hour.” I don’t think she understood what I meant when I told her I was going to ride all day.
Nevertheless, we got out of there as soon as we could, hoping the storm would pass just North of us. For a while, we were riding faster than the storm, finding pockets of blue skies here and there. But of course, the rain caught up with us eventually, but thankfully could do no more than drizzle.
We pulled into Sioux City just as the rain cleared, but were thankful to get out of the weather as we pulled our wet bikes onto the tarp in Mark’s living room.
At the sound of “pizza and beer,” we jumped into dry clothes and were off to Mark’s favorite pizza joint, where we met up with his friend Tammy. After dinner, Mark and Tammy took us on a quick vehicular tour of the town, showing us some great architecture along the way.