Harvesting the Fall Bounty in Iowa
It’s a given that bicyclists need plenty of fuel to power their engines. The late summer-early fall harvest, with all that potential fuel ripening, is also some of the best bicycling weather in Iowa.
Fall in Iowa is what makes the summer's heat and humidity worth enduring. The colors of the foliage, the light as it dances over the partly harvested fields, and the bounty of the season, all make this the favorite for many bicyclists. On a recent weekend, my partner and I hit the road for a little overnight trip to enjoy the end of the season.
We were joined on the ride by almost 200 old and new friends on the Culinary Ride, a second annual bicycle tour of farms, food, and fermentation. Each stop features fare made with produce from local farms prepared by local chefs. Proceeds benefit our school district’s Farm to School chapter and the Youth Off-Road Riders Cycling Club. The Culinary Ride is the brainchild of an enterprising young bicyclist, Audrey Wiedemeier, who is working this year at the Iowa City Bike Library, thanks to AmeriCorps/EnergyCorps.
Cyclists chose one of two routes, the Cherry Tomato, which followed 25 miles of paved roads to area farms, or the 55-mile Beet-It-Up route, which included 15 miles of gravel and dirt roads. Riders were also invited to camp out at the last rural stop, the Clandestine Campsite, in the middle of a forest preserve.
Colleen, Matthew, Jenna, and Erin enjoying the feast and the fun.
This ride was our attempt to keep the magic going after an intense three-week ride down the Pacific Coast from Portland to San Francisco using the Adventure Cycling maps. Larry packed up his Nishiki and I loaded two panniers to ride his LeMond. After (and at times during) the coast ride I'd wondered if I'd ever want to tour again. Happily, I was excited to be a "bagger" one more time, if only for an overnight.
We met up with the other riders at a restored prairie park on Iowa City's northern border. After a veggie hash prepared by breakfast chefs, who usually bicycle their equipment to our twice-weekly farmer's market, cyclists set off in small groups. For many it was their first glimpse of fall on the farms.
A pooch and his pumpkins.
Ride organizers link the foodie-farmer-bicyclist communities together by bringing produce to area chefs who do their voodoo. The first meal stop included baba ghanoush, hummus, vegan wraps, luscious ripe fruits, and an invitation to tour the farmer's virgin and restored prairie.
The rest of the day's stops were just as mouthwatering, and each time we hopped back on our bikes the prospect of yet another yummy dish made the miles fly away -- and kept my dread of riding on gravel (and worse) at bay.
The first gravel road wound through a river valley of quiet farms. In fact, the ride's official photographer took a picture of me attempting to avoid a line of chickens crossing the road.
Why they were crossing the road, I can't imagine! By the time we got to the Amanas, home of world-famous German food and beer, there was just enough time for a quick Octoberfest beer and local apples and spicy cheese. We were about to hit the most challenging part of the ride, 11 miles of gravel and so-called "B-level" dirt road.
Iowa has something like 68,000 miles of gravel roads and another 5,000 miles of B-level roads. Often they connect farms with "farm to market" paved roads. Speed limit for cars is 55 mph, so they can be quite dusty. Still, my friend Larry is no stranger to gravel, having grown up on a farm. He's says that the bike "wants to" stay upright. The trick is not to fight it, and to let the wheels find your path in the gravel.
I'd ridden gravel on the back of a tandem and on the first Culinary Ride, and didn't remember it fondly. Maybe I’m a better rider now (or perhaps the roads were in better shape). It was easier going than I thought it was going to be. I even had time and energy to chat with other riders and sightsee along the way. We'd had so little rain this summer that the B-level roads were very dry, with deep ruts from cars that had in some rainy season past attempted to roll through. One friend on a wide-tired fatbike happily passed me, chewing through the ruts.
After 9 miles of gravel we turned south onto a closed-to-cars dirt road. Past floods had ruined the road leading to the bridge over the Iowa River, though the bridge itself was in pretty good shape.
The scenery began to change as we rode farther into the Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area and left the trim rows planted in soybeans and corn behind. We were in the forest, bordered with open, uncultivated fields. It's like the tundra, one rider said. Soon, a sign directed us to the Clandestine Campsite, where we turned up a sandy road to a circle of trees. A campfire was burning and bicyclists were eating heaping plates of food and drinking home-brewed beer as they sat in groups on sheets and blankets placed around the fire.
Two long banquet tables held our feast. Chef Gaby Wier and her helpers had turned the harvest into "greens chips," zucchini lasagne made with local grassfed ground beef, and several vegetarian dishes.
Just that morning Chef Gaby and I had friended each other on Facebook. As we were introducing ourselves for real, I mentioned that there had been one spot a few miles back where I was ready for it to be over. "I just wanted a beer and a piece of chocolate," I said, laughing. She gestured dramatically, in that way it seems only chefs can. "We saved this for you," she said, pointing to the last piece of chocolate torte, dusted with powdered sugar on its elegant platter of wood.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly as we sat with friends enjoying the campsite and Chef Gaby's feast. As night fell, our companions climbed back onto their bicycles to ride home (or to the official last stop, a bicyclist-friendly brew pub about 7 miles down the road). By dark, the organizer Audrey, her friend Marco, and Larry and I were the only people remaining. As the woods around us pulled on their cloaks of darkness and the sky brightened with stars, we climbed into our tents to sleep off a day of bicycling, food, and friendship.
The next morning all that remained was to brew a pot of coffee, break camp, and ride off to greet the new day.
Tip for this adventure: Be sure to visit Waterworks Prairie Park in Iowa City.
Photos by Sarah Neighbors Photography.