Drifting Through the Driftless

I’ve wanted to visit the Driftless Region since I first heard of it shortly after moving to Iowa, but it’s so far away from our home in Jefferson that we’d put it off again and again.  This weekend it was finally time, so off we went to the north and east.  The idea was to ride bikes, of course, but also to see some new places.

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For those of you who don’t know, the Driftless is a large swath of NE Iowa, SE Minnesota, NW Illinois and SW Wisconsin that was bypassed by the great Ice Age glaciers.  I can’t tell you why this happened, just that it did. Those glaciers scrubbed the land and when they receded, they left behind a form of sediment called “drift.”   There’s no drift in the Driftless, thus the name.  Those who know this region well are pretty much universal in their praise of the place.  This is one of the most beautiful corners of America made even better by the fact that almost no one knows it’s here.  That means it’s unspoiled.   That makes it pretty close to paradise, at least to me.

But I’m not going to call it paradise.  The Eagles sang about this very thing on Hotel California.  Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.  Nope…not happening.  The last thing we need is another nice little corner of America to be “discovered.” There are enough fudge shops in Wisconsin Dells.  If you want candy and water parks, go there.  Ride the ducks.  The Driftless is not paradise. It’s just Iowa…at least this little corner of it.

It is, however, a fun place to explore by bike.  Take Decorah, for example.  I’ve heard it called Iowa’s mountain town and I think that’s as good of a description as any.  It reminded me a lot of Asheville North Carolina.  There’s Toppling Goliath, one of the best breweries on the planet.  There’s a real, honest to goodness main street full of real honest to goodness stores that real stuff.  They’ve taken out some motor vehicle parking spots and turned them into bike corrals.  They were mostly full.   There’s also a bookstore called Dragonfly with an extensive section of Scandinavian fiction.  There’s an incredibly clever store called Cardboard Robot.  I can’t begin to describe it.  We met someone there who worked for Surly Bikes for 17 years before coming here.  Yeah, it’s that kind of place.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.   Our first stop was Mason City, Iowa, the largest town on Interstate 35 between Ames and the Twin Cities at approximately 28,000 people.   Later, we stayed at the most delightful B&B in Calmar (around 1,000 people, more or less) and passed through Waverly (10,000) on the way back to Jefferson.  I wanted to share a little of what I liked about each of these unique places.

Mason City

We stopped in Mason City for two reasons.  One, we have driven past here many times between our time in Minnesota and Colorado but had never stopped and have always wondered what we were missing.  We heard that Mason City was the inspiration for “The Music Man.” Meredith Wilson, the play’s creator, was from here.  Frank Lloyd Wright built houses and the Historic Park Inn Hotel here.  If you’ve ever wanted to sleep in a building designed by Wright, this is your place.    Two, I also wanted to ride the Trolley Trail that runs seven miles west to Clear Lake.

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Along the Trolley Trail.  There’s electric, but I’m not sure there’s actually a trolley.
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These marked bike routes were everywhere in Mason City.  Connectivity was very good.
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Ahhh, coffee.  Sourced responsibly and roasted in the store.
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Mason City had its share of beautiful places, too.

I really liked downtown Mason City.  It felt very European to me.  We had coffee and treats at Beanzy’s and chatted up the owner who came here from Columbus Georgia a long time ago.  I asked her how long it took to get used to the winters.  Her response?  I’ll let you know if it ever happens.

Another thing that was somewhat European about Mason City was all the side paths and really nice signed bicycle routes.  They were everywhere, or so it seemed.   We ended up getting off of the Trolley Trail and just riding around the city.  Everywhere we went was connected.  You know how it is most place when you’re on a side path and it just suddenly ends with no warning?  That didn’t happen here.  Google Maps hasn’t caught on.   Perhaps it’s the unassuming nature of people in this part of the country.  They’ve never really learned the art of self promotion.  They don’t brag.  They just build.  Mason City is a lot more bicycle friendly than I would have expected.  I’d like to come back and explore some more in the future.

Decorah

Decorah is special, not only in Iowa but in all of the Midwest.   It just feels different here…in some ways night and day different.  It’s the kind of place where “play” is just as important as work to most folks and that leads to a healthy, happy vibe.  I could have spent days here.  I can see why people leave places like Chicago or the Twin Cities and settle into a life of relative anonymity here.  I find it very appealing.  I could do this.

Our first stop in Decorah was at Toppling Goliath, the large microbrewery on the east side of town.  Before coming here, I had avoided Toppling Goliath’s beers as they’re a bit more expensive than the average microbrew.  Then I started reading about how people come here from all over the world and how this little brewery is considered by beer advocates to be one of the best on the planet.   I won’t argue the point.  We had a flight that included two beers you’re not going to find on the shelf at your local market any time soon.  This is the good stuff.

As for the cycling, we rode the Trout Run Trail, which forms a loop around the town.  It’s mostly  flat even though Decorah is somewhat hilly.  It connects to a trout hatchery on the south side.  There’s no fence or anything around the pools.  You can walk right up and see the fish. I love trout.

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Downtown Decorah.  Note the bike parking on the street behind the white pickup.
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Oneota Community Food Cooperative, downtown
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We have eagles in Jefferson, too.  They’re not as rare out here as the sign would have you believe.
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Trout hatchery.  Lots of folks here looking at the fish.
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The local tourist attraction.  Seriously good beer.

Calmar

We came to Calmar to stay at the Lavender Fields Inn, a bed and breakfast in a fully restored Victorian farmhouse.  It was a good decision.  The proprietors, Barb and Jeff, were so much fun!  Our room was comfortable and Sunday morning breakfast was one of the best I’ve ever had!  If you come here, you might want to check out the Pivo Brewery, an easy one mile bike ride from Lavender Fields Inn along the trail and an adjacent side path.  There’s also delicious BBQ at Memphis Rae’s downtown…an easy walk.  Memphis will likely be there to greet you.  His pork ribs are incredible.  If you want some, it’s best to get there by 5:00 PM.  When they’re gone, they’re gone.

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Prairie Farmer Trail – Calmar Trailhead

Between all that good eating and hospitality,  I had a chance to ride the Prairie Farmer Trail from Calmar northwest to the town of Cresco.  It’s a 40 mile round trip through a sublime slice of rural Iowa.  The trail is paved asphalt, mostly flat and smooth.  I set forth at dawn on Sunday morning and had it all to myself, passing only a single solitary cyclist on what was a beautiful, mostly windless morning.  The surrounding countryside is just gorgeous, a mixture of forests and fields with some spectacular vistas of the somewhat hilly countryside.

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Straight and flat!
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Decisions, decisions…
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The delightful Lavender Fields Inn

Waverly

As it turns out, we saved the best for last, at least when it comes to cycling.  The Waverly Rail Trail is seriously good…much better than I expected.  It cuts right through the heart of downtown before heading south and east to Denver.  It’s wide, it’s smooth and with the exception of the main drag, it burrows under all the major streets.  If there’s anything at all to nitpick over, it’s the length…barely seven miles.  That will eventually change as the trail is connected to the Shell Rock and Rolling Prairie trails to the west.  When it all comes together,  it will be an 80 mile long trail spanning a good swath of Iowa from east to west.  For now,  it’s as good a local trail as I’ve found anywhere in Iowa.

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Trailhead in downtown Waverly
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This is a wide, beautiful trail.  There are even sections with a median!
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There are several major street crossings with wide culvert-like tunnels
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There are pretty views of the Cedar River as you leave town.

So that’s it…four towns, one very special corner of the state.  I’m glad we headed up here.  I’d like to explore this region more.  In many ways, these four communities were all unique and different.  That said, they had some things in common.  All were prosperous and well kept.  The people were kind and helpful and generally seemed glad we came to visit.  They love cycling, too.  Bikes were everywhere.  It was a good weekend…one of the best we’ve had in a long time.  I can’t wait to come back for a second helping.

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