A Carnival of Earth

There’s a toll bridge in Plattsmouth, Neb., that may as well be a carnival ride. You and a few of your eager pals bomb down Livingston Road toward the river to get there, hepped up on Gu packs sweet as cotton candy. You squeeze the brakes at the tollbooth, where a quarter grants you access to a flood-altered state called Iowa.

Buying anything good for a quarter pushes me back to boyhood quicker than Tom Hanks turned Big. (Image, “Big,” 1988)

You and your buddies launch across the narrow toll bridge over the Missouri and spill out all giddy onto a floodplain flat enough to shoot pool.

No lines at the carnival entrance. (Photo, Addison Killeen)

You hang a right on 195th, your first true north-south option inside Iowa—the kind of paved and shoulderless road you’d normally reject as too boring (Who rides pavement anymore?) and too dangerous (Does the overworked guy in that grain truck see you?). But “pavement” on this flood-scratched billiard table is literally a loose concept. It rides like gravel. Plus, traffic’s nil on this bright morning and your visibility borders on infinite. It’s safe.

Flat and fast as 195th rides, this part is for you like the slow, anticipatory chug of a roller coaster clacking its way toward the thrill you came for. You’re not here for Iowa’s plain old floodplain. You came this way for the beautiful gravel nasties on your left: Iowa’s Loess Hills (pronounced luss).

Honest bluffs. (Photo, loesshillstours.com)

When I was a kid, I understood these steep bluffs along I-29 as the leftover piles from the Missouri River’s godly excavation. I imagined the big Him on his hands and knees scooping out giant fistfuls of earth, like I might dig a sandcastle’s moat, and piling the lumps off to one side.

Surely, went my scientific, Lutheran little mind, God dug the river crawling south, in the direction of its flow. And the bluffs’ presence to the river’s east was SCIENTIFIC PROOF that God was left-handed. I mean, what other explanation could there be?

Michelangelo got it wrong on the Sistine ceiling. God’s a southpaw.

Well, I looked into it, and there is another theory—outlandish as it sounds. And because this is my gravel cycling blog, I’ll write about geology if I want. (Hell, gravel IS geology, so this is fair territory.)

Twenty-thousandish years ago, the ass end of a shrinking ice-age glacier sat tight, right near Ponca, Neb.—where Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa all pinch together.

Picture something like this, except bigger and in Nebraska. (A small fragment of Barry Glacier in Port Wells, Alaska. Photo, Marty Killeen)

Heat sent all sorts of melt flooding down the Missouri each summer, along with plenty of loose silt. (Loess is a German word for loose, btw.) Come winter, this melt-off would stop, and the Missouri would shrink to an icy trickle, exposing all this silt in a wide ribbon of sandbars running about 200 miles, including our little stretch 195th.

Then Nebraska would do what it does and blow like a bloody banshee.

You know how it goes here. (Photo, Mahaska County EMA)

Wind would whip into the river valley and blast that loose silt to the east. That same process happened again and again for centuries, with each summer pushing more and more silt downriver from the sweaty glacier, and each winter flinging that silt east until dunes stood some 200 feet high and the glacier finally ran out of icy ammo.

Back on the bike, you kick east toward those same hills at Waubonsie Avenue in Bartlett. It’s a busier stretch. Trucks thunder by, making you miss gravel and question your route. At the foot of the bluff, your friends question it, too. You all pull over.

See here? They point to their computerized handlebars. There’s supposed to be a left. Right there. You squint at the computer, then squint at the corn field.

Tilt your head just right, and you can still see the faint arc of a road—like a child’s line in rubbed out pencil. There was a road here—until the March 2019 flood decided there wasn’t. Farther out, a brush pile smolders wetly, sending up a lazy kite-string of smoke. You guess this ghost road goes there. And you dive through the ditch with all the hesitance of a bird dog to go see.

Screw it, guys, I’m going for it! (Photo, Addison Killeen)

The early stretch of this amusement ride is promising. There’s a field road up here all right, and you’ve been on worse. You and your buddies all have that delightful inversion so many gravel racers get where you ride fast roads slow and slow roads fast. Your pace picks up as the path fades.

The corn switches to soybeans. Then the field road switches to a pair of ruts in the grass. Then it’s just grass. You’re having an incredible time. You discover it’s actually easier to abandon the grass entirely and just ride the soybean stubble. Your happy bike eats up this terrain as your course through the stubble hugs the bluff’s bottom lip.

You’re close enough now to those wooded Loess Hills that this field chokes with their leaves. The crunch of those spent leaves under your tires is as satisfying as any gravel. You think about the geology of what you’re rolling over—how 20,000-ish years of rain has gushed down these dunes to feed and fertilize this farmer’s field.

You’re in awe of all that you’re moving across. And, man, are you moving—until you’re not. Deep beneath that blanket of leaves, the earth that gives you this awe gives way instead to a three-foot washout. And your front wheel evaporates into it.

Lessons come hard in coyote country.

Your aerobars whistle straight down to take four-inch samples of the soil that so interests you. And you jettison overtop your bars to eat soybeans on the far side.

Your “friends” howl in laughter and stop short of the drop-off’s edge. As soon as you’re certain you’re unhurt, your fear flips into thrill and you want to get on the ride again.

You pluck your bike from its flagpole position. The front wheel remains magically true. You bend your aerobars back to their intended angle, and all is just as it was before your plummet—except for the mud on your bar ends. They’re aerator-bars now, you joke.

Samples for the lab!

Another hundred yards or so and you’re to the smoldering brush. Beyond it, just like you guessed, you discover an honest to goodness dirt road, and it’s pointed right where you want to go.

Marty surveys where the Abes have been, and where we’re headed.

One stone’s throw from here, you hit the bull’s eye. You trigger the dunk tank. You topple every bottle, shoot every duck, and win the carnival’s grandest prize. You bunny hop a rivulet running over the dirt and find—by chance, by perseverance, by dumb luck—the most beautiful road in Iowa. You follow it straight up—and straight into—a 20,000-ish-year-old dune of loess amazingness.

(Photo, Addison Killeen)

As this pandemic continues to blow through us, as our losses accumulate into sad dunes, the valuable things that remain take on a scoured and hardened beauty. Gravel cycling has had its races blown off. Our jobs are washing out. Our children’s schools are grappling. Our hospitals straining. Our families and our hometowns are hurting.

(Photo, Addison Killeen)

In all this, our strength on our bikes has had its meaning bent—as if by a carnival mirror. Being fast means little; holding fast means everything. Without races, these rides with friends, these safe amusements, become the place where we draw strength.

Strength to keep seeing the big picture. Strength to hold it together for our families. Strength for our shared climb out of this—and for all the glacially slow progress that’s sure to come, if we keep pushing.

We know the path ahead is both difficult and beautiful. (Photo, inhf.org)

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