It was late Sunday night. We’d spent the day driving around Des Moines and its suburbs looking at neighborhoods and houses and we were dog tired. The Russian Room in the very bicycle friendly Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa was just a few miles ahead when we passed the sign that said High Trestle Trail, exit one mile.
“Wanna go?” Jan asked.
“Sure, why not.” I replied.
So we went. It was a good move because the High Trestle Trail is the crown jewel of a network of trails that spans central Iowa and connects far flung towns from Jefferson to Redfield to Adel to Perry to Martensdale to Woodward, Madrid, Altoona, Marshalltown and so many more. It’s a bicycle interstate network so to speak, and it is very, very special.
We saw the bridge from a distance and it was stunning. We decided to find a trailhead and explore. The full moon was rising and it was one of those moments in time that you can never really explain but just know are special when they happen. Once parked, we headed west towards the bridge. Frogs were croaking. The air was still. It was spring in the Midwest and all was right in the world. We met a local couple, Mike and Colleen. We shared our dreams with them and they told us we had found Bicycle Heaven. They were right.
They insisted we wait for the lights to come on. People will come, they said, just like James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams. They were right again. Out of the corn they did come and soon this trail in the far hinterlands of Des Moines was crowded and vibrant and alive. The stars were in alignment. It was Nirvana.
If Central Iowa was just the High Trestle Bridge, that would be enough. It’s so much more, though. It’s a 71 mile loop on the Raccoon River Valley Trail and it’s the Heart of Iowa Trail. It’s a network of urban and suburban side paths that make it easy for neophytes to saddle up and ride just about anywhere they want to from the countryside to the heart of the city. It’s the spectacular Iowa Women of Achievement bridge in the heart of the capital city. It’s an attitude that bikes matter. It’s an unwillingness to accept “good enough.” Maybe it’s because this is Baja Minnesota. Minneapolis is the only US city on Copenhagenize.eu’s list of great bike cities. I think they’re paying attention here. Then again, maybe it all started here.
People in Iowa are pretty old-world special. They worry more about the product than the story. They don’t talk much. They just do. They’re comfortable enough in their own skin to think for themselves and do what they feel is right, come what may. The Central Iowa trail network isn’t something that was just slopped together. These folks paid attention to detail. These are mostly 16′ wide trails constructed of poured concrete. They’re as smooth as a baby’s bottom. You can fly if you want to. You can also meander. You’re expected to buy a trail pass. Locals can buy an annual pass. You’d be foolish not to.
There’s this whole bicycle ecosystem that has sprung up here in the cornfields of middle America. Everywhere we went, restaurants were packed with cyclists. Our hotel in Perry had indoor bicycle parking and a well stocked work station out front. Park Tool, baby…the gold standard.
From my perspective, this changes everything. I’ve now seen with my own two eyes that it’s possible to build bicycle infrastructure that connects towns to cities. It doesn’t have to be dangerous or mediocre or substandard. It can be the best of the best. I know. I’ve seen it and now that I have I am no longer willing to accept honorable mention. I’ve been to the top of the mountain. Who knew that it was in Iowa? It is, though, and you can ride it now.