The Mississippi River runs over 2,300 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. As a water resources engineer, the Mississippi, or the “Ol’ Man River” as some call it, is the pinnacle of hydrologic power. It drains roughly 1.2 million square miles of the United States and a sliver of Canada. On day 23 I was sitting in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot in Davenport, Iowa when I came to the realization that our journey was going to cover more distance than the length of the Mississippi. I pulled out my phone, opened Google Maps, and dropped one pin at the Baltimore Inner Harbor and another one in Davenport. I relished in how far we had already gone. Then I dropped a third pin in Cannon Beach, Oregon and realized how far we still had to go before we reached the Pacific. I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I knew how quickly those miles would fly by. I’ve detailed days 24-41 of our cross country trek in this post, but please take this is a gentle reminder to slow down and enjoy the adventures of every day life. It often goes by too fast.
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“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” – John Muir.
Days 24-30: Davenport, IA to Lincoln, NE (396 miles)
We kicked off our first full day in Iowa with a short and sweet 53 mile ride to Iowa City. One of my teammates had a family tie to a horticulture museum, so we got a free tour. You know what was especially neat about signing up for a cross country bike ride with a group of complete strangers? Doing things I never would have chosen to do on my own. I learned a lot this day and really enjoyed the tour, but I never in a million years would have chosen to go to a horticulture museum on my own. Below is a picture of some of us at the museum…a classic example of how impossibly difficult it was to get all of us to look at the camera at the same time. And also a classic example of the striking and vast Iowan sunsets.
From Iowa City we made our way 72 miles west to Grinnell. Somewhere amidst the endless crop fields, the headwinds drastically picked up and we decided to spend the rest of the day in a pace line. I was very, very tired this day, so I happily accepted a draft. But somewhere after the halfway point, I lost focus, clipped my teammate’s wheel, and went down hard. Thankfully the semi that was coming saw the whole thing and slowed down so I could get out of the road. My other teammate that I mentioned in my last post, would end up in another drainage ditch…but we were all OK! That was a rough day, but we all got to sleep in dorm beds that night which was a welcome relief after sleeping on the floor for countless days.
Day 26 took us to Des Moines where the manager of a Marriott let us stay for free. He was a cancer survivor and invited us to a reception where we got to speak on behalf of the Ulman Foundation and explain what we were doing and who we were riding for. That night while walking around downtown, we stumbled across a swing dancing event and had ourselves a blast! My tan lines also came out in full swing (pun very much intended).
The next day took us 82 miles from Des Moines to Atlantic. With 30 mph sustained headwinds, this was easily our hardest day to date. Especially because after being told by several people how flat Iowa was, we discovered that it was actually remarkably hilly. After I checked the forecast that morning and saw the winds we were going to have, I knew I would need a mental boost. My Granddad, a WWII vet and cancer victim, always used to say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” So I had a teammate write that on my arms, and every time I started to get tired, I looked down at that note and kept on pedaling. I went deep into the pain cave and rode hard for him that day.
From Atlantic, IA we crossed over the Missouri River and into Omaha, NE where we were kindly given home-stays by a local church. Myself and three other teammates got to stay with the coolest cyclist. Jeff, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU for brightening our spirits so very much. It was Jeff that informed us that Iowa actually stands for “Idiots Out Wandering Around.” It described our experience in the state perfectly. We were the idiots out in 30 mph headwinds wandering around on loose gravel roads.
We had a rest day in Omaha. Naturally, I went for a run (*que face palm*). It was the hardest 5 mile run of my entire life. Then Jeff fed us a hearty breakfast and took us over to his brother’s house for a day out on their boat. Jeff’s brother was a cancer survivor and while we were bummed to leave Omaha the next morning, his story inspired us to keep on going.
On day 30 we rode over 70 miles to Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska. Jeff rode the first 20 miles with us and then sent us on our way. Our host in Lincoln arranged for a donated meal from Noodles and Company. Each and every day on this journey, I continued to be floored by people’s kindness.
Days 31-36: Lincoln, NE to Yuma, CO (436 miles)
Days 31 and 32 were relatively uneventful. July in the Midwest is no joke, so I’m going to sum up a few very important lessons learned from being on water duty one of these days:
1. If it’s before mile 70** and they’re not too grumpy yet, surprise the riders with a super soaker.
2. Treat your teammates like explosives. When it’s 100+ degrees and there is no shade, 4K riders are very fragile and dangerous.
3. Always tell them they look pretty.
4. Find ice. And find it fast.
5. Know where everything in the van is…down to the very last potato chip.
**After mile 70 do not attempt to engage with the riders. Parental discretion IS advised.**
On the night of day 32 in Franklin, NE, I met a woman and cancer survivor named Bev. She told me her story and when she walked away to fill up her plate, her husband teared up telling me about all of the time they had spent together in the treatment centers and how much he looked up to and admired her strength. The next morning, I wrote Bev’s name on my leg as a reminder of why I was riding. Before we took off, a woman approached me and thanked me for listening to Bev’s story. She was Bev’s best friend. Being a part of these small town stories, even if just for a day, was such a blessing and to ride for Bev that day was an honor.
Day 33 also happened to be the Fourth of July and took us to Arapahoe. Back in Omaha, we had stocked up on all things red, white, and blue. We decked out our bikes, helmets, faces, and limbs that morning, which not only boosted our spirits, but also improved our visibility out on the road. Double win! At the water stops we sang American Pie and belted Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue at the top of our lungs. We spent the night of the Fourth in small town America, watching fireworks over an old railroad. It was an Independence day that I’ll never forget.
The next day was a rest day and our hosts arranged for us all to go to a shooting range. Never in a million years did I think I would shoot a gun. And yet that day I shot both a shotgun (skeet shooting) and a .22 pistol (target practice). And that was the first and probably last time I’ll shoot a gun! Disclaimer: the safety was engaged when this photo was taken…
The next two days were back to back to back centuries. We rode 103 miles from Arapahoe to Imperial, our last stop in Nebraska. This day was the hottest one yet, but we managed to cruise at a good pace and keep our spirits high…maybe it was the redbulls we shot-gunned at the halfway point. We also crossed into mountain time this day so we gained an extra hour!
Day 36 was a 100-miler to a new state! Somewhere around the 30 mile mark, we crossed into colorful Colorado. And at some point after that we lost our marbles…again. After a slew of flats and a lot of boredom, we invented a game called lick or lick. This was an incredibly dumb game and I do not recommend ever playing it. It was like truth or dare but it was either lick this thing or lick that thing. For example, our beloved mechanic, Porter, licked a tire. I don’t remember what the other option was, but if he chose the tire it must have been pretty terrible. The poor guy then proceeded to get very, very sick a couple of days later. As we continued on to our next water stop, it became increasingly evident that our full day of shooting guns in Arapahoe had rubbed off on my teammates. People would NOT stop shooting each other with the water guns! We were excited to spend our first night in CO but knew there were even better days to come.
Days 37-41: Yuma, CO to Vail, CO (265 miles)
Day 37 was another pretty uneventful one for the team, so I thought I’d give a glimpse into the kinds of things we ate on this trip. For reference, we had 99% of our food donated. Our host would almost always provide dinner and breakfast the following morning for us, but we were on our own for lunches. I kept note of the food we got donated to us on day 37, so take a look below and then imagine eating all of this and riding a century in 100+ degree heat…that was a typical day in Eastern Colorado 🙂
- 42 donuts
- An unknown amount of meat and potato burritos
- 10 McDonalds meals
- 15 Arby’s roast beef sandwiches
- 15 Dairy Queen cheeseburgers
On day 38 we hit the road before the sun woke up and saw it rise over the corn fields. This 105-mile day started out strong and then quickly took a turn for the worse. At some point we hit a dirt/gravel road that would last for 12, mostly uphill, miles. But it wasn’t just any kind of dirt. It was the kind of dirt where your wheels sink several inches with every stroke of the pedal. The van started shuttling people after realizing how much of a dent this would put in our day, but the way the timing worked meant my team ended up riding the full 12 miles. Looking back I couldn’t tell you how long it took us to travel that road, but by the time it was over I felt like I had ridden 50+ miles. My legs were SHOT. Luckily a few miles later we got our first glimpse of the Rockies and I got a second wind! We cruised onward past the mile high city and into Golden, looking forward to a rest day and a mail drop.
Our rest day in Golden consisted of bike maintenance, trips to the magical town of Boulder, and probably too much Coors Light. Pro tip: if you’ve just ridden over 100 miles and you’ve reached an elevation of 5,000+ feet, drink SLOWLY.
Day 40 was the first time we decided to split up into pairs instead of larger groups. Since we were climbing into the foothills of the Rockies, it would be too easy to get split up. Even though it was only 40 miles of riding, the constant ups and downs made it a longer day. Luckily I had a great climbing buddy and the views were stunning, so the miles flew by.
Cycling lovers, rejoice! On day 41 we climbed two of the triple bypasses – Loveland and Vail. For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, the Triple Bypass is an annual group ride from Evergreen to Vail with over 10,000 feet of climbing. The only one we would miss is Juniper pass, but I guess that just means I’ll have to go back some day soon!
The first 20 miles of this day were on a paved path sandwiched between towering evergreens. We were gaining elevation the entire time, but it was very gradual. From the end of the path, it was about 5 miles and 1,300 feet of vertical gain before we’d reach Loveland Pass and cross over the Continental Divide. Loveland is still, to this day, the highest elevation I’ve ever been at 11,990′. The water resources nerd in me was also very excited to be at the hydrological divide of the Americas (noticing a theme in this post?). And as a side note, there were no guardrails on Loveland Pass Road. I really hope that’s changed because it was TERRIFYING.
There was an 8-mile descent that we bombed down before we started the climb up Vail pass, which was longer but way less steep. We danced in the rain and then made our way to the host where we cozied up in the mountainside town; thankful for our able bodies, the memories we were making, and each other.