April 4, 2017
Today is Day 12 of the sun being held hostage. The weather continues unsettled and periodically wet, but there does appear to be an end in sight, with the forecast—if it can be believed—predicting sun and temperatures around 70 degrees for the upcoming weekend in Iowa. We’ll see if it comes to pass.
Writer William Least Heat-Moon, who is one of the significant influences for this work, especially his first book, Blue Highways, talks sometimes about the notion of “deep maps,” not his invention, but one which he explores. The term is also mentioned in connection with some British journalism, both in written and media form. Basically, a “deep map” goes beyond the conventional cartography and topography, to focus deeply on all the elements, physical, natural and human, that make a (usually small) place unique and put it into context. It suggests that it may be impossible to separate the place from what we bring to it. Heat-Moon’s second book, PrairyErth, is very much in this mold. Not for all tastes, it’s nonetheless a remarkable work. He spent more than a year and a half repeatedly visiting Chase County in the rural Flint Hills of east central Kansas, which many people who drive through (but seldom stop) on the Kansas Turnpike remark that it’s where the West begins. Much of his time there was on foot, and he reputedly met and spoke with more than half of its 2700 residents.
I can’t hope to duplicate that kind of depth and thoroughness, nor have I ever planned to do so, but I greatly admire someone with the determination to explore all the facets of a place and weave a story from such detailed, dense yet commonplace material.
Yesterday I was well into the deep map of the Missouri River Valley of Northwest Missouri, by circumstance every bit as much as by choice. When Missouri was admitted to the union in 1821, it existed in slightly smaller form than today. What are now its northwestern-most six counties, all but one of them bordering the Missouri River, were not added until 1837. Known as the Platte Purchase, the land was negotiated as part of a settlement with three Native American tribes, who were offered the sum of $7500 plus various improvements (homes, fences, livestock, schools) that—no surprise—only partially materialized. In return they gave up a total of nearly 3600 square miles of land, approximately equal to Rhode Island and Delaware combined in terms of area. Today the Platte Purchase remains essentially rural in character: river bottom land that is extremely rich but also flood-prone, forested river bluffs, and farther inland, rolling farms and small villages and towns.
My preferred route for this trip has been U.S. Highway 59, from which I deviate either by choice (shorter, flatter, etc.) or necessity. Northwest Missouri is one of the latter situations. The highway, sometimes quite closely, parallels the route of I-29, which indeed could take one all the way from Kansas City to the Canadian border. More to the point of this story, there is a 2.5-mile section northwest of St. Joseph, Missouri, with which US-59 and I-29 share the same roadway. The reason is a bridge across the Nodaway River; apparently the original highway planners decided to upgrade the existing US-59 bridge rather than build an entirely new one for I-29.
Other than in some Western states where there are few if any alternatives, bicycles are banned from the interstate highway system. By definition, interstate highways are limited-access highways, and bicycles are excluded. In all but the few Western exceptions, a bicycle on an interstate can earn the rider a ticket. As much as I’m an advocate of bicycle transportation, I understand and respect the restriction.
So I was forced to seek an alternative. In the thoroughly rural Platte Purchase, that’s not so easy, as I learned the hard way. I used Google Maps to seek another route. One glaring limitation of the app, as opposed to dedicated GPS navigation systems, is that it neither informs nor allows you to exclude unpaved roads. The suggested routing was only five miles farther than the direct one which shares the interstate highway bridge, a reasonable tradeoff, I thought, compared to others I have experienced.
I set off from St. Joseph in the rain, typical of the unsettled weather pattern of the past two weeks. It wasn’t quite drenching, although it was a challenge to keep to a route that included numerous turns and deviations as well as quite a few hills. But I soldiered on, until the pavement suddenly ended. My bicycle is not really designed for negotiating gravel, especially when burdened by baggage and a trailer, and the wet surface made travel a little treacherous. But I have to invoke an oxymoron and say this was “good gravel,” if such a thing can exist. Moreover, it was mostly downhill, and mercifully, after less than three miles the pavement magically reappeared. It seemed that I had been spared further abuse.
Not so. I was now deep into the Missouri River Valley, parallel to the railroad, when just as unceremoniously as before, the pavement again gave way to gravel. And this was definitely not good gravel. Nor was it flat. While the railroad clung to a narrow strip next to partially flooded bottom land, the road set its own course on the edge of the river bluffs. It was the kind of road you see in silent movies from the early 20th century, negotiated by high-wheeled Model T’s spattered with mud. It didn’t take me long to remember that this is called “gumbo.” On at least four occasions I was forced to dismount and push the bike up steep grades on which my wheels would spin out if I tried to pedal. The bicycle’s brakes and the soles of my shoes began to fill with the thick gumbo. While traveling at less than 3 mph down one of the hills, my tires lost traction and the bike went out from under me, leaving my rain pants with a prominent brown stripe on the side that went down. I figured I was averaging a little less than two miles per hour.
While pushing my bike up the fifth hill, a pickup truck traveling in the other direction stopped (there was barely room enough for two vehicles to pass). The driver rolled down his window and said, “It looks like you chose the wrong time and the wrong place to be on that bike. Do you need a ride?” “Yeah, I think so,” I admitted. “I’ll never get out of here. How long is it before the pavement begins?” He said the good news was that the worst of the hills were over, but the bad news was that there was five more miles of gravel. He was willing to turn around and give me a lift.
We loaded up the bike and trailer into the bed, and we were underway. The rain had diminished to a bare sprinkle, but the gumbo persisted. Even when the pavement reappeared, it was cracked, patched and pockmarked with puddles. He extended the ride four miles farther to the next tiny town, where we bade farewell, never even exchanging names. I did offer my profuse thanks for the rescue from “gumbo hell.”
I passed the night in the town of Mound City, Missouri, population 1159, which afforded a couple of motels and restaurants by virtue of being directly on an exit off I-29. I had been contacted earlier by a reporter for the local newspaper, and we had arranged an early interview for the next morning so that she could meet her deadline. When I told her of my adventures the previous day, she laughed and said, “Oh, you were in what we call the ‘Monkey Mountains’; my dad lives down that way” in a tiny hamlet I had passed through. She admitted she had no idea of the origin of the name. Perhaps it was due to the odd appearance of the river bluffs in that location that reminded people of descriptions of Africa. I didn’t mention that I wondered if the backwoods residents of this tiny region might look like those depicted in the novel and movie Deliverance.
The next day’s ride was comparatively uneventful, even if it continued to threaten rain that never quite materialized, the first half of the route in the Missouri River Valley, and then after a long climb, into the country that I know so well from so many years of riding across Iowa. No one would call it flat; the hills are frequent but seldom extreme. They haven’t bothered to fill in the sections of the road that could be smoothed out to result in a much flatter ride. As a friend would say, the land has a bad case of the rolls; you feel like you’ve had a rich meal that threatens not to agree with you. It gives me pause about riding the long miles of Iowa ahead with such a heavy load.
Tonight is my last night in Missouri, in the town of Fairfax, population 638, which boasts a quite comfortable bed and breakfast, a decent café that closes at 2:00 pm, a bank with a working ATM, a few other basic necessities, and not much else. No doubt it begs for “deep mapping,” but I’ll have to forego that as I recover with a good night’s sleep and move on my way after a hearty breakfast.
The newspaper office in Mound City, Missouri:
Welcome to Fairfax, Missouri:
Downtown small-town (Fairfax, Missouri) in the rural Midwest. Nearly half the storefronts are empty:
Aunt Martha’s House Bed and Breakfast, comfortable lodging in Fairfax, Missouri. The colorful and fragrant flowering crabapple is just entering full bloom: