We last left off this chronicle in Iowa, but time keeps on marching and we now find ourselves in New Jersey, just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The roads in between have brought new views and adventures as well as some monotony, but things only improved as we kept moving east. Well, except for the weather…
Our stay in Spencer, Iowa was surprisingly fun. When my mom was born and raised there it was a small town, but definitely not the type of whistle-stop one thinks of small farm towns. Spencer is uniquely laid out, with the north end being a historic downtown, with each house looking ready for its own calendar shoot.
Grand Ave. in Spencer is lined with historic houses and new construction that imitates the original style of the town, making it feel like you are walking on a movie set or a giant scale model of an idyllic American town.
Once out of the historic district, the downtown begins with classic brick buildings joined in rows on both sides. Many of the buildings burned to the ground in the 1931 fire. Caused by errant fireworks, it took days to control, destroyed 80 businesses, and made Spencer the first city in the country to ban fireworks.
The bricks remained though, so the downtown has an old-timey feel that mixes pre-war America with a post-war 1950’s feel. South of the Little-Sioux River the town let itself expand, and this is where the fast food restaurants and Wal-Mart are located. Well done, Spencer.
Kate and I stayed two nights in the city campground, fending off mosquitoes by night and exploring the town by day. The house my mother grew up in is long gone, but the cut-in where the driveway used to be was still evidenced, and allowed for a vehicle to cross the roadside ditch and leave a set of tracks in the empty field, giving a feeling of what once was.
We got to see a fair amount of history in the county museum, from mammoth bones to Civil War-era campaign pins to a fire truck from the 1931 fire. I also swung through the cemetery to pay respects to family members long departed. At the veterans memorial they had engraved bricks for several family members inset in a circle.We also lucked out by finding Taqueria el Tapatio. As native Californians we gave up on decent Mexican food until we at least got back towards Texas, but this spot had the most amazing Camarones ala Diabla I’ve ever had. They blew away anything I could find in California, and at a lower price. Way to go, Iowa.
We had to get moving after our time in Spencer so we took some arrow-straight roads east toward State Center, the town where my father was born. The grid makes it easy to plow fields and to build roads, but this is where the stereotype of Iowa being one giant cornfield comes from.
Straight roads lined with corn… that’s Iowa for ya.
The house my mother grew up in once stood here.
Fortunately the town of State Center is pretty small, billing itself as the “Rose Capital of Iowa,” and it had a mighty fine rose garden indeed. It also didn’t have a single stoplight. The old Lincoln Highway goes through here though, so we were able to follow it out of town and finally hit few hills and curves as we moved toward Marshalltown.
The storm damage came on August 10th, from a sort of land-bourne hurricane called a derecho. Whatever you call it, it battered the entire state, hitting the eastern half the hardest. Silos we dented or knocked down, with some torn to shreds. Trees were uprooted or sometimes snapped in half right in the center of the trunk.
That gave Marshalltown a feeling similar to a war zone, or at least a deeply impoverished 3rd world country. Nearly every roof was under repair. Houses were missing part of all of their siding. Businesses were also shuttered due to COVID, making the entire place seem a bit post-apocalyptic.
We set up in the city campground; the only occupants other than a crew staying on-site while they removed downed trees. Well, them and the Canadian Geese. We fought off more mosquitoes, had dinner, and crashed out. In the morning we got on the road with Illinois as the target.
Highway 52 took us into the island-filled section of the Mississippi River where Sabula, Iowa sits. The day ended with Kate and I needing a break from the road, so we found a campsite on AirBnB just outside the Mount Carroll Historic District.
Our host, Chris, had a wonderful property abutted to a corn field, where we set up and used the time to sleep in, get some work and laundry done, and then finally explore the area. Mount Carroll is extremely historic, so the name is apt. The town hall sits next to the original town hall, and both are historic. Many of the buildings go back to the 1860’s, monuments to the Civil War are everywhere, and the abandoned seminary school was a mix of renovations from their 1860’s founding to the 1920’s coal-fired boiler to 1950’s-era faucets and fixtures.
The school has manicured lawns and a maintenance building with a long-collapsed roof, showing both what nature and coordinated preservation efforts can do, depending on who is ore persistent.
We also went further south to see the towns of Fulton and Clinton, where the towns remained active in their attempts to grow, yet still had downtowns that featured veteran memorials put in place before WW2. We had dinner in Mount Carroll and enjoyed walking around the town, seeing the brick roads and historic buildings, then got to bed.
We changed course spontaneously to hit Palentine, on the outskirts of Chicago. Kate’s aunt Linda lived there and they hadn’t seen each other in many years. After Kate patiently waited for me to tend the graves of so many family members, I was obliged to detour with her to see some family while she had the chance.
After a fantastic dinner, some catching up, and a good night’s sleep in a real bed, we set off into the bumpy concrete jungle of Chicago. We were intent on bypassing large cities, but in this case we had to put our heads down and endure.
After a hard slog we got out to Highway 6 and were back in our element. Ol’ Dusty was happy to plod along at the more sedate speeds of 2-lane highways, and we left both Illinois and Indiana behind in a daze. Tiny towns, farmland, open fields, repeat. In the town of Swanton, Ohio, we settled in with a Bunk-a-Biker name Erin.
She was a fantastic host with an old house that still had a barn, with a loft that was converted into a bedroom. We had dinner, chatted about the universe, motorcycles, and live with COVID, then settled in for the night. In the morning the rain was threatening, but fresh omelettes and coffee fortified us for the mission ahead.
We wanted to hug the coast of Lake Erie but also wanted to avoid Cleveland, so we took back roads in between there and Akron, hitting the Cuyahoga Falls area. We cut north to Ashtambula, where Kate had another relative, a first-cousin once removed, who also happened to be an avid motorcyclist.
He took us out to dinner as the skies opened up. We had arrived at the campground just in time to miss the rain, but it fell steadily while we were out, and continued until past midnight. This was the first real night of rain in the tent, and it failed the test. I couldn’t find any holes though: it was as if the rain just permeated the rain fly, leaving small puddles in the corners.
We dried things out as best we could in the morning, aided by the morning sun, then packed up and made tracks for New York, threatened by rain the entire way. Sure enough, we again made it to Buffalo, NY, just as the rain came in, even with some stops in Pennsylvania to inspect the local culture.
Here is where our luck ran out, and windy rain fell all night, remaining in the morning. To top things off Kate and I had a fight that night and neither of us got anything even approximating restful sleep. Tired, wet, windblown, and miserable, we started in for a 220-mile day with the weather radar showing no signs of reprieve.
We stopped for lunch just as the rain started to let up, having a midday breakfast. The owner and staff saw our predicament and offered us the table as long as we wanted, but the weather radar clearly showed the storm system heading in the exact direction we were heading; the longer we waited, the further ahead of us it would get.
Back into the rain we went, hands and feet soaked through but with decent
rain gear we could at least keep our cores dry. We got ahead of the weather after about 70-miles, but it continued on-and-off the entire day, until we pulled into Evans Mill, NY, to see my friend Paul.
I know Paul from volunteering with the Veterans Charity Ride, who I pilot a sidecar for as they take wounded and amputee veterans to the rally in Sturgis every year. Paul was on the 2019 ride, then came back as a volunteer for the 2020 ride. As motorcyclists, veterans, and travel enthusiasts, we just have a natural ease whenever we get together: as if we’ve known each other for much longer and don’t live 3,000-miles apart.
Paul is working on starting Waorgany Brewery, and that means he has home-brewed test batches of beer that you can’t get anywhere else. He took us into his home like we were long-lost relatives, setting us down to an amazing dinner of pork loin, vegetables, homemade salsa, and, oh…more beer.
Thoroughly taken care of it was hard to look into the stormy skies in the morning and contemplate leaving. The problem was amplified by omelettes and bacon, fresh coffee, and good conversation. We had to make it down to New Jersey though, because Kate’s friend Scirocco had taken off work in anticipation of our arrival.
On the plus side of things, we were out of the rain within 10-minutes, then experienced that perfect combination of cool air but a warm sun, panoramic views of the leaves changing, smooth pavement, and light traffic. We went through hamlets as well as bigger towns like Hamilton, all having a unique feeling of history as well as a modern pulse.
There were enough Amish on the roads to remind us that New York is often thought of as New York City, but most of the state is quite rural: much like California and people’s fascination with Los Angeles and San Francisco. Hell, we even managed to see some kind of Amish-palooza, where over 20 buggies were lined up while their horses stood in a circle eating hay.
The biggest change when we entered Pennsylvania was the speed limit. That state has ridiculously low limits, causing a rift between law abiders and people who long ago gave up on compliance and just drive at whatever pace they deem safe. We were on a 4-lane highway with a large grass median and no cross traffic… with a 45mph speed limit. I’d expect 55mph on the low end and more likely 65mph in any other state.
The police were also camouflage experts, using dark-blue cars with black lettering, low-profile roof lights, and very little in the way of radio antennas or push bumpers. You lost my respect mighty quick, Pennsylvania.
We managed to outfox the law by taking in the views as many rivers and lakes sprouted up. In Scranton we settled in with another Bunk-a-Biker, Jennifer, and her family. Their house was gorgeous, on a corner lot, and we had a converted basement all to ourselves.
We enjoyed a dinner that made us feel like royalty, talked about everything from socialism and taxes to Harley-Davidson’s business model to the types of beer we prefer. That has become a constant thread when we stay with Bunk-a-Bikers: the conversation is stimulating, deep, and amazingly open when it comes to listening to differing or controversial views. I’m not saying that if everyone owned a motorcycle there would be world peace, but Hitler didn’t have a motorcycle, so there…
Again, despite being hosted well, we had to hit the road. In the morning, after some coffee and a quick bagel, we grabbed some groceries in Scranton and made our way east. My phone had died the other day and, despite it showing signs of life, Kate had to relay directions to me through our Sena© Bluetooth headsets. It went pretty smoothly though, with me making most of the mistakes because I couldn’t read road signs in time to make turns, but at least I was looking for (and usually finding) the correct ones.
The route was absurd compared to the mapping app I use (take note, Apple users), but on the plus side it took us off any sort of highway and started sending us through neighborhoods and backroads that had nothing but farm vehicles on them. The speed limits were still absurdly slow, but with these backwoods routes we were unlikely to meet the fuzz, and we bounced and wobbled on until finally making it to New Jersey.
The light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, we make it to the east coast.
Here we are now, with more stories to make and later tell. Kate went to the Jersey Shore and saw the Atlantic, but I have yet to lay eyes on it (haven’t seen it since 2006). We are with her good friend Scirocco, have taken in a weird stray dog that likes to pee on things way too much [update: found the owner and reunited him with his family], and are enjoying the dying days of fall weather here in the northeast.
More stories will come, but I’m happy to say you, dear reader, are at least caught up. We’ll continue to post on our Instagram and Smugmug gallery for the photo minded and the lazy (who reads anymore, right?). Once my new phone arrives I’ll be able to add to that, but until then it’s Kate’s job to post pictures, so if you aren’t seeing anything, call her and tell her to get to work.
Until next time,
Covered bridge outside Ashtambula, Ohio.
Exploring the abandoned seminary: