A Midwestern Bike Tour: Illinois to Minnesota

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1978

By Nancy Ziegler — It has been 45 years since my first bike tour in the Canadian Rockies. And, it has been 6 years since I did the 2300-mile Underground Railroad Route at age 63. I asked myself if I could still do a bike tour successfully as I approached my 69th birthday. I wanted to try.

I chose a familiar area for a ride. I would take Amtrak to Illinois, visit my Mom, and then bicycle back to Duluth, Minnesota, my present home. I would start riding from the family farmstead near Henry, Illinois. It would be around 650 miles by bicycle.

Nancy’s Ziegler’s bike tour route map of her trip from Illinois to Minnesota.

The training was a great challenge because we had snow a couple of times in May this year. I did the best I could with getting out and pacing myself with distance, sprint riding, and short enjoyable rides. Unfortunately, I was not able to get the miles in that normally would give me the assurance of physically being prepared.

I did a lot of cross-country skiing throughout the winter. I was doing 4 or more-mile walks and skijoring with my dog, Anni. The endurance training and leg strength would hopefully pay off for bicycling.

I began to prepare maps and gear even though I had some panic attacks about taking on this adventure. I genuinely believe a person’s worse enemy is the propaganda of fear. I just had to stop these negative feelings and go for it.

I packed my smallest panniers in my true minimalist way. I then unpacked them and placed all the contents including the panniers into a very small, lightweight backpack so that I could most easily board Amtrak with the bike in tow. It worked! As it turned out, my farming brother had been having so much rain, he was not in the fields when I arrived at the train depot in Princeton, Illinois. We put the bike and gear in his truck and went to the farm. The only reason my brother was available was because the fields were too wet for farming.

My bike with my gear and food for the evening. Photo by Nancy Ziegler

My visit with my Mom was good. I would spend Sunday morning with her and then begin my tour in the afternoon. That, of course, was weather dependent.

Adventure Cycling has a Northern Tier Trans-Continental Bike Route that passes 3/4 mile from our farm. I would use their route, or so I thought. It turned out that, due to the flooding of the Mississippi River and other smaller rivers in central Illinois, I would not be able to stay at my first planned destination. How crazy! The Northern Tier Route would not work here in Illinois.

That was actually fine with me. The county roads in that part of Illinois are very familiar to me. I decided to re-trace the route my sister and I had taken in Illinois on my first trans-con 37 years ago. (I have done three trans-cons.) So much for the Northern Tier Route that first day. Instead of crossing the river at Muscatine, Iowa, I would cross at Clinton, Iowa like Diane and I had done from the other direction. Then, I would try to re-connect to the Adventure Cycling Route in Iowa.

Day 1, 5/26: 62 miles

Due to the fact that I did not start riding on Sunday until 1 p.m., I planned a 60-mile day to Prophetstown. It was near perfect for me. The air temperature was in the lower 70s and there was cloud cover. I rode on those gloriously beautiful, paved county roads. I passed several windmill farms in the midst of the grain farms that were soggy with wetness. The crops should have been yielding green rows of corn and some soybeans on May 26th. But the wetness yielded many fields with ponds of water or just worked dirt with inch tall corn. It was a bit disconcerting because of my farm background.

Riding county roads in the Illinois Prairie. Photo by Nancy Ziegler

At one point, I was to turn onto Tampico Road. Tampico is the birthplace of Ronald Reagan. I saw the road sign but was unsure. I stopped and asked a young farming family who were outside in their barnyard. The little 2-year-old handed me a bottle of cold water. The Dad drew me a map that would be a more direct route to Prophetstown. The Mom told me she wished me well and would send me good energy for safety. I loved this interaction.

The route he gave me was perfect. It led me right onto the road on which was the Prophetstown State Campground. I rode into it seeing the flooded Rock River.

The campground was a bit soggy, and I was the only one there except the campground hosts. I found a high place in flat Illinois and put up my tent. I had ridden 62 miles.

Due to the sogginess and the bugs, I actually cooked and ate my meal in the shower/restroom. The facility was spotless and cleaner than my own kitchen.

The next morning, I walked around the campground and saw majestic, healthy ash trees. Perhaps those trees will be so isolated by all the prairie farmland that the ash borer beetle won’t find them. I was ready for another day.

Day 2, 5/27: 78 miles

I was pleased to wake up to a dry tent. I had breakfast and took a nice walk around the park. The Rock River was truly in flood stage. I travelled on county roads for the first 25 miles. They were glorious. Soon after I turned onto Route 30, the rain came. I debated: keep riding for a while or stop to put on rain gear. I waited too long. By the time I got the gear on, I was already pretty wet. This was a good thunderstorm. The traffic was low on 30, so I opted for the highway’s bridge rather than a less travelled alternative. I was concerned about the conditions of the other route due to all the flooding.

As I was crossing the Mississippi, lightning struck. Yikes! What a place to be: in the middle of a river on a metal bridge with lightening and rain. Needless to say, I made it across. Meandering through Clinton, Iowa was pretty easy. I even hopped onto a bike trail that ran next to highway 136. At one point, I was unsure whether I was still on 136, my highway for the day. I stopped at a local fertilizer company. All the guys were inside and unable to work due to the rain. I had a good friendly conversation with them pertaining to the terribly wet planting conditions this year. I find it so easy to talk to Midwesterners.

I arrived at Maquoketa Caves State Park fairly early in the afternoon. Due to the fact that this part of Iowa was unglaciated when the last glaciers hit the Midwest 10000 years ago, the caves existed. There were stone arches and numerous caves. It was quite impressive, but I was not interested in crawling into those dark spaces.

As the evening came upon me, Nathan (4 years old) and Emma (7 years old) visited with me. Those two were a sheer joy. They wanted to go inside my solo tent. I would not let them enter and told them it was only for Grandmas. Nathan swatted the bugs that landed on me. We walked back to their campsite and Mom and Dad smiled when they learned how their children helped make my evening.

Day 3, 5/28: 82 miles

I rode in rain all morning. Finally, I got to Cascade, Iowa and was now on the Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier Route. I took my time trying to dry out and get warm in a Subway Cafe where I ate lunch. I detoured off the route to avoid 10 unnecessary miles.

My brother and I had discussed the weather patterns before I left the farm. I had to get north of Dubuque, Iowa in order to get out of the main path of the storms that were covering the Midwest. When I got to Dyersville, I was again riding with tailwinds like the previous days. But, there was a foreboding wall of dark clouds creeping along the southwestern horizon. I had planned to camp at Colesburg that night, but now wanted to get to Elkader where there was a motel.

I stopped by a farm store and Breanna, a 20-year-old farm kid, gave me a better route than what my map had. She told me of an extremely dangerous intersection that had been on my route that would now be avoided. She saved my day because I was only a little past 40 miles and had to get to the motel before 6 when everyone told me the storm would break.

The county roads were perfect. I was on top of a ridge in the driftless area and could see for miles and miles. The farmland had been cultivated, but no crops were yet growing. I later learned that the Iowa farmers were 40% behind in getting the corn in this year. This is grim.

I went down some beautiful hills as Breanna told me I would. Unfortunately, I would have to climb a hill to get to the motel. That really was no big deal. Hills are pretty easy for me. I got into the motel at 6 p.m., the predicted time for the storm to hit. Within 5 minutes of my arrival the skies burst open. I was exhausted. The wonderful owner of the motel called the local restaurant, and I ordered food. He picked it up for me and refused to take any money other than the cost of the food when he brought it to me. He was a good guy with a tidy little motel. I slept well.

My rest stop in northeastern Iowa. Photo courtesy Nancy Ziegler

Day 4, 5/29: 61 miles

This day I was tired. I started out with rain again. It let up by around 10 a.m. I stopped in Monona and had a better breakfast than the sandwich that I had eaten at 6 a.m. I knew that I needed to take a good rest there. I was weary. I called “Diane in Wisconsin”, a friend. She would try to meet me in Marquette. This break was good for me, and I was also excited about meeting Diane. I rode a predominantly downhill stretch into Marquette. We met at a Casey’s, a local gas/food chain. I had the privilege and honor of not only getting to see Diane and her dog, Jane. I also got to meet 98-year-old Aunt Mary! She was charming. Those two just made my day. I enjoy just talking to the folks along the way. And I especially love the subculture that exists in the rural Midwest.

Day 5, 5/30: 78 miles

This would prove to be my most challenging day. By this time, I was finding that my body was responding fairly well. My legs did not cause me any muscle soreness. What I was finding is that I would have some soreness in my neck or shoulders or back or crotch. Had I spent more time on the bike before the ride, these problems would not have been eliminated. There were times when my arthritis acted up during the wet days of riding. Overall, I found that I needed to take more frequent breaks. Then, I said to myself, maybe I was doing that on other rides too.

View of the Mississippi River near La Crescent, Minnesota. Photo by Nancy Ziegler

I was feeling pretty good when I started this day. I was on the Mississippi River Bike Trail along with being on the Northern Tier maps. I entered Minnesota about 25 miles south of La Crescent. It was a pleasant ride until I got to that city. Upon arriving there, I had to jump on the shoulder of 14/61, a major expressway that led to Interstate 90. Was this truly what the Northern Tier had planned? After 1.5 miles, I was on an actual bike trail.

I stopped in Dakota, MN and had lunch under a gazebo that overlooked the flooded Mississippi. I relaxed and enjoyed the moment. Then, the Northern Tier route had me ride on the shoulder of 61, a major expressway. The worse came when the left-hand lane was closed for construction and the vehicles crowded the wide shoulder where I was riding. Adding to that, half of this shoulder was covered with enough debris that I was now sharing the traffic side of the shoulder with all the cars and semis. Then, after a good distance, the construction ended. Cars and semis flew by me at 70mph! Never would I have put any bicyclist on this rode! I truly feared for my life! I had 13 miles of this horrible travel. By the time I got to Winona, I was totally convinced I should bail out on this tour.

I went into a Kwik Trip and got a snack. When I left the store, I just stood by my bike knowing I could not continue to ride on 61 and the Northern Tier through here and have more of the same. I contemplated how I could end the trip. It was sad for me because my body was performing so well. Then, a “bicyclist’s angel” came up to me. He was a road cyclist in my age range. I explained to him what was going on with me. We concurred that the Northern Tier Route would continue to be more of the same. He told me to cross the bridge and ride the other side of the river in Wisconsin. It took a few moments with this conversation before I realized he gave me a way to continue my tour. He told me how to get across the bridge and then take Wisconsin 35 north. This guy even followed me in the car a bit to make sure I would find the bridge.

Huge white pines at Merrick State Park, Wisconsin (which was flooded). Photo by Nancy Ziegler

Crossing the Mississippi was easy. Riding on low traffic route 35 was actually enjoyable. I pulled into a Holiday gas station and talked to a 70-year-old guy who was cycling the MRT but opted to ride in Wisconsin instead of staying on the bad routing in Minnesota. He was absolutely refreshing. We talked, laughed, and enjoyed our bicycling moment. I then rode on to Merrick State Park and had a most lovely site under giant pines in yet another flooded state park. The campground was open and practically empty.

I showered, ate, and relaxed and was ready to continue my trip, but I would head directly to Duluth and not go back to Minnesota.

Day 6, 5/31: 85 miles

Now, the crazy thing about switching up my route is that I had no Wisconsin map. The state park ranger found an old one in her car and gave it to me. I would simply follow Rte.35. I moved along quite well. I had a nice shoulder and relatively little traffic. I saw the great rocky bluffs that line the Mississippi in this part of Wisconsin. It was warm. I took a detour and crossed the river at Wabasha in hopes of picking up some maps that were sent to me priority mail. They were not there, but that was okay. It was a little scary crossing that bridge…I am not sure why. Soon I was heading north again on 35. When I stopped for lunch, I engaged in conversation with a few people who were impressed with what I was doing. They told me about the “big hill” I would encounter. Yes, it was a big hill, but the heat was causing me more problems than hills. I later found it had gotten up to 87 degrees that afternoon. No wonder I had to stop a couple of times and cool down. I rolled into Prescott and found the motel that was there. It was not the finest place, but I did not want to ride another 10 to 15 miles of possible hills to get to a state park. Again, it was nice to relax and have a good shower.

Day 7, 6/1: 94 miles

I rode on county roads that ran parallel to 35 for most of this day. I found that Holiday gas stations had county maps or gazetteers. So, I would figure out how I could keep riding on the county roads. Unfortunately, I trusted a woman in a tourist center who recommended a “new” state park to me. It would be about 4 or 5 miles out of my way. I got there only to learn they had no drinking water, only the lake which I could see from a distance. This meant doing a search for some place to camp.

I googled lodging and learned that there was a place on the other side of Frederic (my nearest town) This would put me at over 90 miles for the day. My legs felt strong. And, in spite of having a stomach ache the first several miles of my day, I was feeling just fine at about 80 miles. I almost stayed in the yard of a single woman and her child. She was very welcoming, but my intuition told me that it was not a good idea. There was something about her bone thin appearance and her story that made me wonder whether there was some sort of addiction problem. I didn’t need that. So, I rode to Frederic and found a couple of normal looking women outside a restaurant/bar. I asked if they could help me find the Birchwood Breeze Resort. After a little hesitancy, they gave me good directions, so I took off down the road. I rode past dairy farms and forest and eventually got to the lovely, retired folks RV summer resort. It seemed most folks rode around on golf carts here. My neighbor offered me a glass of wine as I set up my tent. It was a wonderful way to end my day.

Day 8, 6/2: 100 miles

No, I really did not plan to ride 100 miles. But, I did it and said Happy 69th Birthday to self. I really desired to stop at Pattison State Park and take another day to finish. That way, I would have had an 80-mile day with about 50 more to my actual house on day 9. But, because of some personal circumstances, I wanted to be back at my house without another day of travel. I could not ride all the way back to my house, so I texted all of my Duluth contacts for a pick-up in town. My friend, Jane, responded and would meet me.

This day was again rather good. I passed though very few towns. I did take my breaks. I thought Dairyland, WI would have a store. No, just a kids’ play set in front of the fire department building. I sat inside the little slide set and ate my lunch. I forced myself to snooze and give my body some rest.

Open countryside and dairy farms in northwestern Wisconsin. Photo by Nancy Ziegler

This day, as I progressed to around 80 miles, my legs were sore and tired. The Wisconsin scenery had truly changed. I was no longer in the driftless area. Rather, it was bog and woodland. I stopped at a little tavern and had a snack. It was fun talking to the two that were in there. By the time I got to Pattison State Park, I was tired. I refueled, and elevated my sore legs. I just laid on the ground and rested for a while. I popped a second Tylenol and jumped back on the bike. The last 20 miles flew by for me. I rode across the Oliver bridge and hit a bad pothole. That was a sure sign I was back in the Northland. I rode on until I was in Duluth. Jane picked me up and I had a huge smile on my face. The trip was a success! 640 miles in 8 days!

Nancy’s Ziegler’s final stop in Duluth, Minnesota on a 100 mile day (with a smile on her face). Photo by Nancy Ziegler

There are many, many thoughts that would fly through my head on a daily basis. There is not a day that I don’t find great glory in the beauty of the Midwest’s landscape. I love the local culture that is present. Having grown up in the Midwest makes it easy and most enjoyable to ride through the rolling hills and flat plains of this agricultural region of the states. I don’t know when and if I will be able to do another bike trip like this. And, if this is my last, it was through the part of the country that is most dear to my heart.

How many folks can appreciate actually seeing livestock in fields? Oh, the beauty of the rolling acres of earth just makes me feel so blessed. The interesting interactions that happen as I travel just fills my soul. I am ever so thankful each day I am out there riding my bicycle. It brings me such joy and peace. I think of my family, my friends, and not of politics and other social media features of the day. I am just out there. Yes, just out there and loving it.

Trip Details:

  • Day 1: 10 mi. west of Henry, Illinois to Prophetstown St. Rec. Area; Prophetstown , Il. 62 miles
  • Day 2: to Maquoketa Caves St. Pk.; Maquoketa, Iowa 78 miles
  • Day 3: to Elkader, IA 82 miles
  • Day 4: to Lansing, IA 61 miles
  • Day 5: to Merrick St. Pk.; Fountain City, Wi. 78 miles
  • Day 6: to Prescott, Wisconsin 85 miles
  • Day 7: to Birchwood Beach Resort; Frederic, Wi. 94 miles
  • Day 8: to Duluth, Minnesota (home) 100 miles

Nancy Ziegler is a retired high school teacher living in Duluth, Minnesota. She took her first self-contained bicycle tour in 1974 through the Canadian Rockies and down into Glacier National Park. 

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