The October sun sometimes brings little warmth in Iowa. This year, however, it burned bright in perfect blue skies. I could not wait to ride my Yamaha up through the bluffs and valleys along the Mississippi River.
I live west of Dubuque, a river town of its own distinction, in the country. I love nothing better than loading up my bike and taking off for new vistas and have logged thousands of miles doing so. But nothing fills my spirit like the Great River Road in Northeast Iowa. My trusty bike almost seems to know the way; I’ve ridden this way often, but the view behind the handlebars is ever-changing. Brown corn stalks wave gently as I ride toward Bankston, whose church steeple rises proudly across the hills (My favorite view of it happens to be from Park Farm Winery’s deck). A few fields have been picked or partially so, and I watch out for corn pickers and tractors on the road. Farmers wave at me when I roar by.
At Holy Cross, I turn onto Highway 52. This road, usually pot-holed and rough, has seen some improvement over the summer. It curves and dips just the way a biker likes it. I pay attention, even though I know this road, but still manage to catch the rolling hills views from the high ridges. Riding on a Tuesday means the traffic is light, but I approach blind curves with some caution.
The 15 miles from Luxemburg to Guttenberg fly by, sturdy farmhouses with bountiful pumpkins for sale, ancient cemeteries, and tiny churches along the way. Seemingly without warning, the view in front of me changes. I love this part of my ride, looking down over the winding river and lush bluffs. I stop at the lookout (“Honey for Sale”) and park the bike. An older couple pull in after me and the three of us silently gaze out across the valley for several minutes. “It’s peaceful, isn’t it?” the woman asks. I nod and head toward my bike but she stops me with a pat on my arm. “Take care, dear, and be safe.” I feel like hugging her, but smile instead.
I seldom pass through Guttenberg without stopping by the river park or having a cool drink in the Dam Bar (yes, that’s its real name), but today I want to get farther upstream. My later start means the fall sun will be lower sooner. The River Road beckons. The trees on the way toward McGregor-Marquette are starting to show spots of yellows, reds, and oranges. By next week, they should be glorious, and I cross my fingers mentally for the weather to hold. Riding down the steep, seemingly 90-degree gateway into McGregor always takes me back in time. The store fronts look much as they did years ago, when this town had a thriving oyster shell industry. The train runs next to the river, and any local can talk about fishing or the mood of the river. I would love to stop, but have my sights set for Lansing today. I do pull on gloves: The next part of the road winds between the bluffs and the river; even on a sunny summer day, it remains cool and shady.
I own the road for quite a few miles, until I meet a long convoy of vehicles led by a pilot truck. I idle patiently and nod at the road construction guys, who smile and wave at me when I take off again.
Little river towns like Lansing seem to be hidden, accessible only by twisty old roads and protected by rocky hills and swiftly flowing waters. I can easily imagine horses and buggies raising dust on the narrow streets. If I had more time, I would cross the high grated bridge into Wisconsin today. I would also take the incredible ride up Mount Hosmer and catch that spectacular view again. Yes, Iowa does have a mountain, for those who don’t believe it. I grab a bite and reluctantly turn south, resolving to stop at Pikes Peak on the way home.
Zebulon Pike, the same guy who named the famous Pike’s Peak in Colorado, explored this Iowa valley in 1805 and thought it would be an excellent place for a fort. The fort was actually built in Prairie du Chien, but Pike’s Peak has remained much as it was 200 years ago. I learn all this from the historic plaques on the stone overlooks. A few people have made the trip today and we almost reverently look down onto glistening waters, green-forested aits, and plateaued bluffs. Old Zebulon might have been behind my shoulder in this moment of time, for the way it feels. I imagine he would enjoy the idea of this 60-year-old grandma riding her motorcycle through this wild part of Iowa.
I ride home in a somewhat altered state, humbled, exhilarated, and proud.