Monona, Iowa to Brownsville, Minnesota
Distance: 68.2 miles
Ascent: 3,583 feet
Cumulative Distance this tour: 680.5 miles
Wonderful overnight tenting in Monona’s Gateway Park. Once packed, we each headed over to Subway or Quillin’s grocery store for things like lemon-filled donuts and coffee.
In the center of Monona we picked up Pleasant Ridge Road headed east, and took it 14 miles in the early morning mist prior to sunrise, through fields of corn and soybeans. Reaching the river bluff, we were rewarded with a 500’ drop in elevation to reach the town of Marquette. Giddy-up!
Marquette is a tiny tourist town with a railroading history. Our first stop was a small pier where we took in the sight of the river. Finally made it (back) to the Mississippi!
Good breakfast at the Marquette Bar & Café, the usual: eggs, bacon, and toast. Friendly service and friendly patrons.
GREAT couple of miles north up Water Street from Marquette. Just picture rolling along the bank of the Mississippi, all magnificently spread out up here, with puffy white clouds and blue skies. MAGNIFICENT.
We then had our first of many lessons about Mississippi River geography in these parts. The road veered away from the river for a few miles, and in the process rose quickly back up 500 feet. That’s to say, the ROAD rises quickly, not us. The labored climb took us to another ridge along farm lands, then on another 500’ drop into tiny Waukon Junction on the riverbank.
The reward was worth it. More of the same stunning riding along the bank, this time with a tailwind, too. Pinch me – it just doesn’t get much better.
In Harper’s Ferry, we hunted down a place called the Supper Club for a light sandwich lunch. The lunch was ho-hum, but we really enjoyed listening to the sweet accent of our server. Think Minnesota or Canada, but also think Sarah Palin.
From there we took Great River Road 16 miles north to Lansing. Same lesson as before. The road turns away from the river and climbs 500’, this time even steeper. Once on top, we continued to tackle 200’ and 300’ rollers. Our reward , once the heart rate slowed enough to enjoy it, was beautifully sculpted farm lands and views. And of course, another ripping descent back down to river elevation in Lansing. Phil struggled a bit in this section, walking some of the steeper sections, but did fine on the flats.
Similar to Harper’s Ferry, we enjoyed more FABULOUS riding north of Lansing, hugging the river just above the railroad tracks, with little traffic. The road eventually pulls away from the river, but this time didn’t involve climbing. While we rode, dark clouds conspired in front of us and the day soon resembled dusk, despite it being only about 3:30PM. We knew rain was forecast but it wasn’t supposed to hit until 6PM.
But down it came, in torrents. A mile south of New Albin, we pulled over to find a big garage building with an awning out front, and so stood there with our bikes to wait out the downpour. Radar information would have been useful, but none of our phones had signal.
While we waited, a pickup truck arrived and rolled into one of the building bays. A head popped out, “A lot drier in here.” The guy had one of largest man-caves I’ve ever seen. Spacious, plenty of room for several trucks and numerous ATVs. A wall full of trophy deer heads (almost all by archery) and trophy fish. An office. A rustic kitchen for cooking game that only a guy could maintain.
The rains continued and we weighed our options while playing with his dog Molly. Our maps indicated no commercial lodging up in New Albin. However, our friendly host grabs his phone and calls up an acquaintance there who takes in boarders. Handing Jack the phone, it is soon tentatively set up that we’ll take a room with clean sheets and TV for $50, which sounds pretty damned fine. But we decide to decide once we reach town.
A lull in the rains finally arrived, but our new friend warned us that his radar shows more waves coming. As we’re about to pull out, he states, “By the way, you know you guys are the most polite people who have ever been in this building.”
We soon made it to New Albin under dark skies. It was already 5PM but looked more like 8PM. All sound logic screamed that we should stop here for the night.
Regrouping in a parking lot, we had a short meeting that went something like this. Jack: “OK, so we should decide what we want to do, stay or ride. What do you think, Phil?” Phil: “Oh, whatever you guys want.” Well, I was a little surprised at Phil’s lack of opinion, so, almost in retaliation, I said with a grin, “I think we should ride.” The next second, Jack chimes in, to my utter surprise, “I vote we ride too. Let’s go.” Against all sound logic.
We stopped first at the City Meat Market for dinner provisions, scoring some tasty sandwiches, chocolate milk, and a big bag of cheese curds. Looking at the map, I noted 14 more miles to camp. Will we make it?
Less than a mile out of town we hit the Minnesota state line. The dark clouds continued to swirl above, but Jack was steadfast that we stop for a group photo by the state line sign. In retrospect, I’m glad his lunacy prevailed – the photo came out pretty good.
Continuing north, we rejoined with the river bank – yielding still more fantastic riding. I couldn’t quite enjoy it fully due to the extra riding attention needed (dark skies, black road, and a thin shoulder). Alas, in 10 miles, the skies opened up heavily on us again. We battled through the downpour 2 miles where Phil finally located the Shellhorn Bar & Grill on the left.
Phil did an inadvertant tip-over in the parking lot, but actually managed it pretty well. But we soon ended up on the front porch of the bar, 110% soaked and dripping, surrounded by patrons and bottles of beer. One kind lady approached us with, “You guys are hardcore cyclists!” [Trust me, we will remember that sentiment for a long time.] To which Jack replied, “Uh, you mean idiots, don’t you?” Phil and I soon grabbed a cold one, Jack a Pepsi, and we sat on the porch taking it all in. Man, it just doesn’t get better.
A break in the rain, and we quickly rode off to reach our camp at Wildcat Park & Marina. Jack had made a reservation there months ago, but the park ranger could find no record. The next thing we knew, he invited us to stay for free. Maybe he felt sorry for us dripping wet and riding bicycles. Maybe he was sorry because he thought we were idiots. In any case, it was a generous thing.
To our great contentment, the rains cleared and the evening sun began to peek out beneath the clouds. Our tent site turned out to be a perfectly idyllic location on the river bank. The spot was BEAUTIFUL. The sky turned colors. The river waters reflected them. Barges rolled by. The temperatures were perfect, drying us out and warming us up. I kept taking pictures of our tents, wanting to capture the feeling of where we were. If we had stayed in New Albin, we would have missed all this greatness. It really doesn’t get better – we are SO lucky.
Phil was a bit quiet this evening. Jack and I considered that the longer mileage days plus the hills were perhaps giving him concern, so we considered shortening tomorrow’s ride, planned for 75 miles or so. We decided to ride 47 miles to Latsch State Park, then see how things stand.