Western Iowa

Text: Wayne Peterson • Photography: Wayne Peterson, John Kimpel

Iowa, as everyone in Wisconsin knows, is that big flat place to the west where they grow corn and where all the crummy weather comes from that hits us about three days later. That's why our "gang" had to be nuts to even start a tour, heading straight into the worst weather in over 100 years. Biblical weather - torrential rain, lightning, hail, 50-mph winds, flooding and tornadoes - was in store for us and yet, we never got wet.

It all starts on our way to Sioux City, Iowa, when John on his basic black '97 Harley FXD, Kent and Dorothy on their hygienic white '05 Honda Gold Wing and I, aboard a copper-and-black 105th anniversary edition '08 Harley Ultra Classic, are slammed by 30-mph crosswinds with gusts to 50 mph. There are whitecaps in the flooded fields, for goodness' sake! When a semi passes, it feels like we are going to be pushed clear off the road, but there's no rain. Throughout the entire trip we keep "just missing" the rain. We stop to eat, and the gray skies open up in a torrent that knocks squirrels out of the trees. We finish our meal, and the rain stops. We ride for hours under billowing black clouds with the weather band making dire predictions, but it always just misses us or hits while we're sleeping.

While looking over our maps in the planning stages, we couldn't help noticing that wet and wild Iowa is actually book-ended between two of our country's most important and historic rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri. Although both borders are lined with some hill country, the west, or Missouri side, rolls more and therefore it became the focus of our tour. This region is known as The Loess Hills National Scenic Byway Spine and Excursion Loops. The "spine" represents the major (paved) roadways. The "excursion loops," 16 in all, are the gravel side roads that venture into the hills and then loop back out to the spine a mile or more up the road. The Loess Hills area is 200 miles long (running from Sioux City, on the northern end, to St. Joseph, Missouri, in the south), and it's up to 15 miles wide.

Getting There,
More or Loess

We are riding the Byway from Waubonsie, in southern Iowa, all the way to Westfield, in north-central Iowa. With a sprint over the Missouri River and down through Nebraska, then back again over the river into Iowa, and returning to Sioux City is a distance of 454 miles. The height of the hills ranges from 200 feet down to only a few feet, and their composition is truly prehistoric: glacial filings as fine as flour called loess (pronounced "luss"). The action of wind and time blew them into dunes, which were covered with topsoil, vegetation, and numerous wildflowers. If you strip off the protective layer of topsoil and expose the loess to rain, it will dissolve. These hills are enlivened with all your common midwestern birds and critters and by the industry of farmhands in the little valleys. If they're not raising a cash crop in the bottomland west of the hills, they're grazing cattle, sheep or goats in the hills, watering them at the rushing streams and shimmering ponds. And we can tell from the number of empty boat trailers that they are getting in some pretty good fishing too.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the March/April 2009 back issue.