Iowa: hot, windy, hilly

July 7, 2008

I’m writing this evening from Rock Island, Illinois, which is just across the Mississippi from Davenport, Iowa. We just finished three of the hardest days of the ride thus far, which is a real surprise as all of us are much fitter than when we started. Basically, the problem is that for the first time we’ve encountered a wicked combination of elements: wind, hills, heat and humidity. Whereas in the west we had a lot of climbing and sometimes heat, we never had to face climbing into a headwind under a blazing sun in high humidity. The mountains may have disappeared, but oh my are there hills in Iowa. Today we must have gone over 25 short but steep climbs on our ride in the southeastern part of the state, with grades that occasionally hit double digits. This, combined with heat in the upper 80s and humidity somewhere above that, made Iowa a real beast.

But the worst part of it, by far, was the wind. Now, we’ve had our share of wind on this trip, but until this week we didn’t have to fight headwinds. Upon reflection, that’s a bit of a miracle, given that we rode about half the country without running into headwinds. Our troubles began three days ago, when our route shifted from a due-east route to a south-by-southeast route. This coincided with a shift in the wind direction from southwest to south or southeast, meaning that we were either riding with a stiff crosswind (never easy — see my post from Nebraska on this one) or, far worse, a strong headwind. Today we must have ridden half the route straight into a headwind, which frankly was so exhausting that it sapped our will to continue.

Which brings me to a related subject: wind power. This week we saw three huge wind farms, the first real wind farms we’ve seen the entire trip. Each one of these had at least 50 windmills, and the largest might have had 100. We also saw many trucks carrying the parts for new windmills (a single rotor on one of these things measures at least 75 feet in length, and these are small windmills, at least by European standards). After riding through states like Nebraska and Iowa, I’m convinced that wind power is a real energy alternative and should be seen as such, instead of some kind of effete novelty. Anyone who’s ridden into the face of an unrelenting wind (I am tempted to call it “merciless” after this week’s riding) understands just how much power really exists up there; all we need is to tap even a fraction of it in order to go a long way toward solving our energy and emissions problems. In any case, I hope more states and the federal government get on board creating the kind of incentives that the state of Iowa must be providing to build wind farms.

Tomorrow we’re hoping to take a state rail trail that is allegedly 39 miles long; we’re hoping it lives up to billing, as its path takes us precisely in the direction we want to go. And, of course, we really, really hope the wind shifts a bit or, failing that, simply dies down somewhat.

  1. Margaret Said,

    Peter and all, we continue to enjoy your blogs and can picture you out there! The Iowa hills are a surprise to me, though, and I agree we should encourage more wind power. Sorry to hear Ian’s not feeling so well… and on his birthday! I do know what strong headwinds are like, and realize that the one day I rode with you all was pretty ideal! Thought of you yesterday: the kids and I took our bikes on Amtrak to Fairfield (~30 miles west, adjacent to coastal hills) for a ride in different scenery. A bit hot and smoky but we got an early start and rode west (into the wind) before heading north (over I-80). After just 8 miles, Emily’s neck hurt (she doesn’t really fit Don’s old bike but insists on riding it — we plan to get it adjusted) so we cut the loop short (maybe 12 miles total). Could have been discouraging, but instead I was so pleased that 1) we all got out there as a family (like you are doing), 2) Emily did so well under suboptimal conditions (like you are forced to do, day after day), and 3) Peter was so patient, understanding, and encouraging despite not getting to go far and fast (like you were with us and are with each other). Keep up the great adventure and family connections! — Margaret

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