South of town, on the bicycle

It finally stopped raining and warmed up today so I was on my bike this morning. I rode to work on Wednesday, but the terrible weather on the intervening days kept me off for the rest of the week. I took a swing around the south side of town. Some notes:

That derelict barn along the trail deteriorates a little more every year. I believe the architectural style is Johnson County Dilapidated.

A deteriorated red barn in a state of partial collapse.
Dilapidated barn

Terrible weather is great for dandelions. The soccer fields at Kickers Park were yellow with them.

The lawn at a soccer park is yellow with dandelions.
Dandelion field

The sculpture at the Kickers Park reminds me of something you might see at an airport. It’s a reminder that kids of all colors– purple, blue, or orange– can set aside their difference and a joy a friendly game of soccer.

A colorful sculpture of children playing soccer.
Soccer sculpture

I have located Cow Number 457.

A black cow in a pasture with 457 painted on its hide.
Cow No. 457

A couple of men were out grooming the private baseball field on a cattle farm on Sycamore Street. It’s a regular field of dreams.

A man grades the infield on a baseball diamond at a cattle farm.
The Cattle Yard

Bird notes: There were lots of coots and (I think) scaup in a pond. I also saw a meadowark, a couple of egrets way out in some corn stubble, and some kind of sandpiper (solitary?) in a puddle.

The perils of pedal power

Now that the weather has become tolerable for a while I rode my bike to work for the first time in a few weeks. Some sort of concrete-mixing operation sprung up just outside town last month, possibly in support of the major highway work along Interstate 80. This means there are many more trucks along my usually quiet commuting route. It adds a little edge to the ride.

This year’s meager rains have kept the roadside ditches from getting overgrown and choked with weeds. This means that from the road’s narrow shoulders I can see almost straight down into the culverts that cross beneath. The lack of vegetation doesn’t make the ditches any more dangerous; it simply makes more apparent my likely demise if one of those trucks blows me off the roadway.

Selected for extinction

Speaking of bicycles and wild animals:

I ran over a squirrel this morning on my way to the farmers market, with my bicycle. I couldn’t believe it. Two young squirrels were in the middle of the street doing who-knows-what as I glided downhill. One dashed to the far curb but the other checked back and forth before heading right into my rear wheel. I felt the bump. It must have survived the moment, because when I looked back it was gone. I doubt it will survive though.

Stupid thing. I hate running over animals but that was pure destiny if I’ve ever seen it.

Bike to work

This week was Bike to Work Week and I bicycled to work all five days. Whew.

The weather was good for it excepting the storm that rolled in during commute time Tuesday evening. Then my wife had to pick me up.

During my morning rides I discovered I had a nemesis: an aggressively territorial red-winged blackbird. The blackbirds are ubiquitous along the route. They nest in the grassy ditches along the farm fields. The males  perch above their little kingdoms on the telephone wires that line the road.

I’ve been attacked by blackbirds before, but this one was particularly regular and devious. His particular stretch of road curved steeply over a ridge, so I was moving slow and couldn’t quite look all the way up to see him. I could hear him chirping overhead as he launched himself from the wire and then suddenly a whirring of feathers as he buzzed my right ear from behind. Every single morning in the exact same place (right down to the same crack in the asphalt). I knew he was coming but in my concentration pedaling up the hill he’d still startle me. “Damn you!” I shouted as I shook my fist at him.


I had my first good look at a coyote today. I’ve only seen them from a distance before but this one crossed about fifty feet in front of me on bicycle trail between Coralville and North Liberty. I thought at first it was a small deer; with its long legs and quick and effortless gait, it definitely didn’t seem like a dog. But for all its deer-like movements it didn’t look anything like a deer either. The bushy tail gave it away as it paused to look at me and then disappeared into the woods. It’s funny how such a close relative of a dog can be so not dog-like.

Cliff swallows

Crossing the Burlington Street bridge on our bikes yesterday, we saw the bridge’s resident cliff swallows catching insects over the river and returning them to their nests. We looked over the parapet and saw the swallows making their sorties right below us since their nests were right under our feet. Though they moved very quickly we saw the colorful little birds up close and, when we listened closely, we heard the chicks in their nest squeaking for food.

Mendoza and Maipú

My trips to Argentina have been usually confined to the city of Córdoba and its environs. I’ve wanted to see a little more of the country and so we took a side trip to Mendoza, the city at the heart of Argentina’s wine country.

A city seal is diplayed in lights in a plaza at night.
Plaza Independencia is lit up at night.
A tree grows out of a deep open ditch on a city street.
Shade trees grow out of the deep irrigation ditches.

Mendoza is a little smaller than Córdoba and without the big universities the population isn’t quite as youthful. It doesn’t have the elegant churches that you practically trip over in Córdoba. Mendoza does have rather deep open stone-lined gutters—more like trenches—along both sides of each street; you really have to watch where you step so you don’t fall in. The arid region has an extensive irrigation system that supports its agriculture and at first I assumed these ditches were a relic of this old system. I realized later that they are still being used for agriculture: Mendoza’s famously shady streets are lined with London plane trees which grow at orderly intervals out of the ditches.

Students on a field trip gather at a plaza fountain.
Students gather at the fountain in Plaza Independencia.

In addition to shade trees, Mendoza’s centro (downtown) is filled with tidy plazas, including the massive Plaza Independencia and the spectacularly tiled Plaza España. West of downtown is Parque General San Martín, a massive Central Park-like place we wandered around in common cold-induced stupor during our second day in the city. The park has some quiet sunny meadows which, when you’re sick and checked out of your hotel room and have eleven hours to wait for your flight out of town, are excellent for time-wasting naps.

A women rides a bicycle on a tree-lined country road.
We road our bikes along Calle Urquiza in Maipú.

But while still healthy on our first day in Mendoza, we took a city bus just out of town to Maipú, home to a number of wineries and olive oil factories. In Maipú you can rent a bicycle and tour the various bodegas (wine cellars). The terrain is very flat and the town even has a ciclovia (bicycle lane) through the main part of town. South of town the ciclovia disappeared but the scenery was delightful: a shady rural road that passed by vineyards and olive groves. The irrigation ditches flowed with water. We rode out to the edge of town (about 12 kilometers) to Laur, an olivicola (olive plantation and factory).

The museum displayed antique olive presses.

A tour of the facilities included a visit to the trees, the factory, and a museum with a collection of antique presses. The tour was in Spanish, but the guide spoke very clearly so I was able to practice listening. With great concentration I can understand Spanish well enough; my main challenge was tuning out a small group of Americans in which one of the women was providing an English translation.

A shallow pit marks a vacant space among a row of olive trees.
The rows of olive trees were just starting to bud.

I learned that olive trees live for a thousand years but these lazy plants only produce olives for about four hundred years. Each tree produces about twelve liters of oil each year. If I had to guess I’d say that Lore and I go through no more than two to three liters per year, earning us a small minority share of one dusty green olive tree on a farm like this somewhere.

A row of barrels marked with different labels of wine at a vineyard.
Wine barrels with the bodega’s different labels were lined up outside.

After sampling some finger foods prepared with the house aceite de oliva (olive oil), we crossed the street to Carinae, the neighboring constellation-themed winery. We found a couple of Americans from the olive oil tour ready to begin a tasting. The guide spoke excellent English; more impressive was her command of wine jargon which is like its own little dialect.

Before we began the tasting, the guide asked us where we were from, a classic tour guide ice-breaker I have come to dislike and have discarded from own professional methods. It’s never a simple answer with us, Lore is from Córdoba and I am from New York but I prefer to just say that we live in Iowa whereas Lore prefers to relate our respective origins.

One of the American women said, “But you are not from Iowa. I can tell you are from New York.” Back home I make a regular practice of ignoring as many of my compatriots as is practical, and I would have been pleased to continue that routine 9,000 miles away from home. But the guide was surprised and intrigued and wondered how the lady had known that even though I had barely said anything. I didn’t comment (and didn’t care to, though I later suggested to Lore it probably was because I was wearing a rain jacket in the desert—”New Yorkers always come prepared,” an amusement park clown in Florida told my raincoat-clad family while making small talk with us on another vacation twenty years ago). The American lady, who was from San Diego, and had probably seen slicker-wearing New Yorkers jostling their way across her own rainless homeland, added that I probably stood out in Iowa too. I replied that I didn’t think so. This lady was the second person I’ve met on a trip abroad who was both from San Diego and intent on needless gum-flapping (the other was a blowhard in a London bed-and-breakfast about ten years ago who informed me about post-September 11 conditions in New York City).

Stacks of wine barrels in a cool, dark, concrete room.
The bodega had an above-ground wine cellar.

Anyway, we tasted a couple of Malbecs, a Torrontés, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Syrah. I’m not a discerning wine-drinker; they were all very good. The guide then took us on a short tour of the bodega, switching to Spanish for my educational benefit since the Americans skipped the tour. They label each bottle by using a little hand-operated machine.

We wound up the afternoon with a pleasant ride back to the bike rental. The sky was still overcast and cool but the sun came out enough to make the shady country road appealing.

Argentina, 2011


A bicyclists poses in front of a Welcome to Wilton sign.
You're on the right track

RAGBRAI passed right through Iowa City this year. I joined in early this morning from home. Today’s tour followed my commuting route to West Branch. It was fun to make that ride today without cars or stress about getting to work on time, though with so many bicyclists you must pay attention to your lateral movements. A lot of people bicycle the way they drive: thoughtlessly, as if putting on a spandex shorts and a mushroom-shaped helmet suddenly makes you the god of the road. But the people in a hurry passed early and by the time I approached Wilton most of the remaining riders were the leisurely sort.

I didn’t go any farther than Wilton, which was the halfway point to Davenport. Today was a bit hot for my tastes, so Lore picked me up there. While I waited I had a chance to mill around town. Wilton has some nice old downtown buildings and a partially restored old train station. A small exhibit in the train station describes it as an “attractive nuisance” that local preservationists saved from demolition. The attractive nuisance provided the best shade, with a view from the railroad grade of the crowded downtown. A long train of multimodal containers, grain bins, and gas tanks passed by around noon, carrying the stuff that feeds our habits.

Speaking of attractive nuisances: RAGBRAI riders sometimes wear costumes. I saw a fifty year old man in a dress and a couple of women wearing fake plastic butts with red “sore spots” over their shorts. I can’t decide which was more gruesome.

Lore arrived after the main surge of riders had left Wilton, but she was still impressed with the size of the crowds. She noted that many of the bicyclists are not in very good shape. I always thought of this as the paradox of cycling. Bicycles are labor-saving devices as well as exercise machines: as the technology improves and bikes become lighter and easier to operate, you have to ride more and more derive the same fitness benefits. On top of that, a lot of the riders head straight to the beer tents in the meeting towns. Lore said that’s like smoking cigarettes in between playing sets of tennis.

I think my little Nikon digital camera might finally be shot. All of my photos were overexposed.

Flat tire

I’m getting some practice changing flat tires on my bicycle. My second of the week came when I was about twelve miles from home.

I rode down to Lone Tree (about 16 miles from home) and explored the farmland beyond. I was looking for a defunct town where there’s a park but I couldn’t get my bike down the gravel roads. I did see a red-headed woodpecker, a huge flock of purple martins, and an oriole.

I’m used to red-winged blackbirds chasing (and sometimes attacking) me as I ride through their territories. This time a pair of males tag-teamed me as I crossed the boundary of their little blackbird nations. One picked up where the other left off, like some sort of harassment relay.

Today’s ride was about 43 miles total. I’m off to a late start this year because of all the crappy weather and am working my way up to following part of RAGBRAI later this month.

Roadkill mink

During a bicycle ride to West Branch I stopped to inspect an unusual specimen of roadkill: an American mink. Other than skunks, I’ve never seen another species of mustelid in the wild, so this was worth stopping for.

Paying attention to roadkill must be my way of reconciling my appreciation for the wild outdoors with my dependence on the killer ribbons of concrete for… everything. If we’re going to pave and plow paradise we might as well learn something from it. The road provides a gruesome catalog of seasonal migrations: muskrats, spring peepers, orioles, garter snakes, daddy long-legs. (For an irreverent accounting, read “Flattened Fauna” by Roger M. Knutson.)

Examining the slaughter, I was in a steep, short valley between two hills of the type that define Iowa’s rolling landscape. Here the two-lane Herbert Hoover Highway follows an inorganically straight course down one slope and up the other. The dead mink was right at the lowest point where a creek passes under the road through a culvert. “Creek” is perhaps the wrong word; this was more of a straight, woody ditch squeezed between rectangular pastures on each side.

Elusive animals like minks and their relatives don’t usually hang around on the streets. Why didn’t this clever creature use the culvert to cross under the road? The possible answer was about ten feet away. I noticed it by following a trail of blood and chocolate. Some sort of snack bag, partially ripped open with its pulverized contents melted by the morning sun down to uniform brown goo.

The crime scene suggested the following story: someone, maybe young rural stoners driving home from Iowa City last night, lost control of a rogue bag of munchies. The mink, its natural habitat reduced to tenuous corridors between cornfields, ventured out of the ditch to chow down on the easy prey of this carelessly discarded grocery and got creamed by the next motorist.

The mink’s corpse, the snack bag, the culvert, the country road, and I all agreed this was a sad commentary on the state of wildlife in the United States of America. Case closed, I bicycled home past a dessicated chipmunk, a flattened opossum, and a shattered songbird.

Streets of Iowa City

Groups of students with band instruments practice on a field.
The impending football season is always a sign of late summer.

Since it’s back to school time, Iowa City is being repopulated by “stoonts”. Mostly I notice the bad driving, which has been compounded by a sudden rash of street construction all around town. I’m not sure why the city waited until August to start all these much needed street repairs. Anyway, I bicycled with Lore over incompletely repaved streets to work this morning. On the way we found the university marching band practicing on a field. They weren’t marching but practicing with their instrument groups around a mock football field.

A sand sculpture of a bear roasting a marshmallow over a campfire.
This was probably the cutest sand sculpture of the lot.

Downtown, this weekend is Sand in the City, a sand sculpture competition and festival. Lore wondered out loud why a landlocked city like Iowa would have such an event. It’s a fun thing for the returning students and their parents who can be seen accompanying them around town during the weekend before classes start.

Speaking of landlocked, the Landlocked Film Festival is next weekend. I’ve missed it every summer. I’d like to break that streak.

Smears of black grease in the shape of a bicycle gear on a man's leg.
I've been thinking about where I can use this pattern.

I had a little mishap on my bike. I’m embarrassed to say it happened while I was walking it across the street and more embarrassed to say I don’t know why it tipped over, but I got an massive smear of chain grease on my calf. It looked like an interesting tattoo when I squinted and ignored the lacerations.

A day of owls

At work this afternoon I spooked a great horned owl out of a pine tree. It flew to the ground and with its massive wings spread did a sort of “dance of intimidation” while it watched me. I thought it might have been sitting on a nest so I gave it some space and left.

Then, this evening at dusk, while riding our bikes back from the grocery store, an owl swooped down out of tree right over Lore’s head. Lore is much less of an owl buff than I am, which is to say she does not like them. I wish it had swooped right over my head.

Purple martins

Small purple birds perch on their birdhouses and telephone wires.
Small purple birds perch on their birdhouses and telephone wires.
I put in about 50 miles on the bicycle this morning, riding down to Hills, Sharon Center, Joetown, Frytown, Stringtown, and the other little dots on the map. Casey’s in Hills has purple martin houses. The birds were out and about this morning.

Western Johnson County is pretty farm country and a fun place to ride. The Amish farms in the area often have purple martin houses as well. I presume they use them for insect control. Today was a good day for birds, even if I was whizzing by on my bike. In addition to the martins, I saw indigo buntings, a red-headed woodpecker, house wrens, a dickcissel, goldfinches, and others I couldn’t identify in my haste.

Nice day for a ride

The wind yesterday was ridiculous, gusting up to 30 miles per hour. Today was calm, so I rode my bike down to Lone Tree today, about 40 or so miles there and back. Lone Tree is a very small town, but the convenience store at the gas station there was like Grand Central Station today.

The warm weather hasn’t broken out yet for good yet (there was supposed to be a low of 34 degrees this weekend), but we have a nice week ahead of us. I haven’t taken my bike to work yet this year so I might be able to get to it now. A lot of people were out today fishing, riding, playing ball.

This is graduation weekend for the University of Iowa, and thus the kickoff of that pleasant summertime lull when the local residents take the downtown back for themselves.