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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Pinballing Through the Midwest

After my plane landed in Kansas City again on Sunday morning, I left straight from the airport and rode to Des Moines, IA. The trek north through Missouri wasn’t terribly interesting, consisting mostly of forests that hemmed in the highway and occasionally a nice farm or two. The countryside got prettier as I pushed into Iowa and the farms became more common. The crops weren’t always harvested yet and the road was sometimes rimmed with meadows of yellow flowers that shone golden in the occasional sunlight.

Des Moines is a pretty city. It’s got a simple Midwestern charm combined with patches of modernity. Clean stone buildings flanked the capitol area downtown, which played host to a street fair when I rode past. I found a nice brewery to stay in for a couple hours and soak up the local flavor.

If this were a normal night, I might get a motel and it would pretty much end there. Instead, I went looking for a campground that I’d found online at the Iowa State Fairgrounds just outside of downtown. I rode into the fairground and quickly became lost amidst the eerily quiet carnival rides and the smells of ten thousand servings of caramel flavored popcorn. While I was motoring around and pondering whether it was a good idea to interrupt one of the carny bonfires to ask directions, they closed the gate through which I’d entered. Ten more minutes of wandering in circles left me feeling claustrophobic and antsy so I gunned the engine, offroaded my way through a picnic area and escaped onto a local street.

Done with Des Moines, I resolved to find a campsite at a nearby state park, to no avail (no campsites). The second park, a cold 30 miles away, was more hospitable so I began to make camp. I’d just put the hammock up when *SNAP*, the rope down the middle broke. Tired and at the end of *MY* rope, I spent 30 minutes calling motels before riding another 40 miserable miles in the darkness to get to one. It was supposed to start raining at 4am and I wasn’t about to deal with that in a broken hammock. With my streak of luck, to do so would just invite disaster.

The next morning’s journey south through Iowa was again some of the best riding of the midwest so far. There wasn’t anything particularly awe-inspiring but it had a decent mix of family farms and forest and the coming fall was just beginning to lighten up the colors of the leaves. The soybean fields were already a pretty yellow color in the patches of sun that broke through the dreary gray clouds. By the time I’d entered Missouri again, though, the sun was hidden and the landscape took on the less interesting character of forest mixed with light housing.

Some road shots of Missouri:

Saint Louis isn’t a city that sneaks up on you. It may not be as sprawling as Houston is but it does a pretty good attempt at it. Despite this, the downtown had the same nice simple style that I was coming to associate with all midwestern cities. It seemed like a mix between the development of downtown Chicago and the small town mannerisms of Des Moines.

I had some amazing BBQ at Pappy’s Smokehouse on the recommendation of a friend and rode to the river to see the city’s most prominent feature, the Gateway Arch. As I emerged from the buildings of downtown and parked quasi-legally, I was impressed by the size of the thing. It dominates the riverfront park from which it rises and it dwarfs even the skyscrapers around it. I gazed up at its belly in the quiet night for some time, surrounded by the trees of the park and the twinkling lights from the other side of the river.

The next day I started early and took a detour to the Lake of the Ozarks on my way to Tulsa, OK. I’d vacationed there many years ago and stopped by to satisfy my nostalgia. The trees thinned out a bit during the ride and opened up spaces for small houses and farms but the best part was the return of the hills that I’d been starved for during the past several days. The road was fast and twisty and I sure didn’t see too many speed limit signs. When I pulled into the picnic area, I was the only human being for miles around.

I left the tourist-trap-y area around the Ozarks and pushed into Oklahoma. The trees continued to thin out until there was more close-cropped cow pasture than forest. I chased the sunset into Tulsa and stopped off for dinner on 15th street. It seemed like a really cool area — lots of coffee shops, funky restaurants and bars. It was a bit like the Westheimer @ Dunlavy area of Houston and, like Houston, it lasted for merely a few short blocks before giving way to a dirty urban sprawl.

Wednesday morning I took a walk through the Tulsa Rose Garden before heading to the local Triumph dealer to make a quick chain repair.

With renewed confidence in the health of my bike, I turned east and started towards Arkansas. The land slowly closed up again into dense forests and, stuck on major highways, it was a tough ride for me to stay focused on. With about 70 miles to go until Little Rock, AR, I had to get off the interstate and onto the side roads to keep my sanity. Luckily this coincided the rise of some gentle hills so I had a great fast ride on the country roads. I again got lost more in the pace of the ride than the scenery itself, but it put me in high spirits when I crossed the bridge into Little Rock.

Little Rock embodies that quaint pretty simplicity that is quintessentially midwestern. The waterfront has been beautified and hosts a daily farmer’s market in addition to regular festivals and special events. There is an old railroad bridge that got converted to pedestrian use and it pretty much screamed “climb me” so I obliged. I had some fun taking pictures on the top until a child noticed me and people started getting awfully concerned that they had a jumper on their hands. A small crowd was still stopped and pointing upwards when I snuck down the back way and slinked away.

The town’s main “night life” street (if you can say such a thing) paralleled the waterfront park and, of course, it was very nice but unfortunately brief. I had a frosty beverage at the Flying Saucer (same as the Houston bar of that name) and met a wonderful local couple who painted me a picture of life there. They also advised me to check out Hot Springs National Park the following morning, and, despite it being completely out of my way, I had to oblige.

I am 100% behind the mission of the National Park system and that’s why I think that Hot Springs’ national park status is ridiculous. The town of Hot Springs lies in a hilly and forested section of Arkansas where Bill Clinton grew up. The local geology permits nearly boiling hot water to seep from a steep mountainside and the inhabitants there seized upon that fact to build a community of Eurpoean-style spas and bathhouses.

From humble wild-west origins to a high society cure-all, the town evolved as the technologies of the day enabled it to expand its clientele and spread an ever more ridiculous array of supposed healing technologies to hapless victims. It became a haven of the powerful and monied elite, a place where gangsters cavorted under a police-imposed armistice and rubbed elbows with politicians of the day. And, somehow, they managed to secure national park funding to protect the wellspring of the prosperity of the local private enterprises which owned the select few bathhouses that had access to the treasured hot springs water. I’m sure no palms were greased in that little deal.

Regardless of the shady nature of National Park, Hot Springs is still a very interesting place to visit. Bathhouse row is well kept and beautiful, with fountains up and down the block spouting steaming jets of fresh spring water into the cool morning air.

The interiors of the bathhouses, one of which is the visitor’s center for the park, are set up to resemble the strongest excesses of the European heyday. No expense was spared when decorating, from the intricate tile work to the stained glass ceilings on the top levels.

I watched the video (which is basically a 1970’s advertising pitch for the nearby bathhouses) and walked through the facilities, marveling at the “treatments” that wealthy people of the day would put themselves through in the absence of real science and the shameless profiteering that occurred at their expense. After a while, I pretty much got the picture and decided it was time to begin the long ride east to Memphis.

The 400 mile ride was surprisingly unremarkable as I stuck to major highways for most of the time in order to make it to Franklin, TN in time to have dinner with a couple of friends. Trees consistently lined the highway and I was left to my own thoughts as the hours whiled by. Memphis was a brief highlight, as I rode past and observed its somber stone buildings. I didn’t have time to stop and stay (or sample the BBQ…) but, from the glimpses I caught on the way by, it reminded me a bit of the Rust Belt towns I’d passed through several months earlier.

At one point in the afternoon, I seemed to pass an invisible line and the trees got about twice as tall as they had been before. I left the highway and finished my ride to Franklin on the fast, windy local roads that zipped through the forest. I made it in time for dinner and was glad for the opportunity to rest before the next leg of my trip. The Midwest was, overall, a difficult patch of riding. I had known it would be flat, but I wasn’t prepared to deal with the wind or the sheer *sameness* of it all, particularly during my rides through Nebraska and Kansas. The midwestern cities at least were a positive experience, but I looked forward my autumn homecoming to New England with renewed excitement nonetheless.