Title: A Bicycling Trip to the Mississippi River

Category: Fiction

Date Occurred (if it had occurred): Perhaps Autumn of 1982

Date Written: March 18, 2005

Copyright (c) March 18, 2005

Written by: Joel T. Kant


Bicycling had a large influence on my life when I was in high school. With my after-school paper route and a summer job at the swimming pool, I saved money and purchased a hand-built Trek bicycle. (See Figure 1) I treated getting a touring bicycle like my classmates treated getting their first automobile. At that time, Trek was a small company handbuilding bicycles in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Today, Trek is a huge multi-national company, with the lower-end bicycles made in Japan and other places. Many years later, I still have my Trek, and it remains in excellent condition. I doubt any but the very most expensive Trek bicycles are hand-built today, but even their least expensive model was back when I got mine.

My Trek Bicycle

Figure 1: My Trek Bicycle

When I moved to Cornfield University, the amount of time I spent cycling declined drastically, but did not completely vanish. When the weather was not snowy and it was Saturday or Sunday, I would bicycle from the dormitory out to the giant M. The M was built of rock and cement on the side of a hill some miles outside of Cornfield City. That M was about the same area as a football field, although the M was at a steep angle on the side of a hill. The M stood for mining. Cornfield City had in the nineteenth century been a major lead mining area, although the lead mines had mostly played out before start of the twentieth century. A mining school was combined with a teacher's college to create the university of today. Mining engineering was a major offered when I attended Cornfield University, although not as popular as majors like mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. My declared major was electrical engineering.

As I regularly pedaled to the M on my Trek bicycle, I often passed an engineering professor named Dr. Rosenthal. He jogged to the M and back. While a pleasant bicycle ride, jogging to it struck me as an impressive feat. What made it even more impressive is Dr. Rosenthal's hair was gray, so I assumed he was far from a young man, although I did not know his actual age.

I did not use my expensive Trek bicycle for riding around campus. I kept it in a closet in my dorm room. Instead, I had a battered two-speed Schwinn for riding around campus. I had paid a mere five dollars for it. It had needed repairs including straightening the wheels and repacking the bearings, which I had found easy to do. More than just the normal risk of theft, I had reason to fear because I had enemies at Cornfield University. I had been choked until some other students pried the man off me, my dorm room door had been destroyed by a hammer and replaced by a new door, and I had received about a dozen phoned death threats. When I complained, the Cornfield University authorities put this down to "initiation that got out of hand." The authorities were certainly involved when my dorm room door was completely replaced. I never understood what that initiation excuse meant. As far as I could tell, those who hated me seemed to do so because I completely abstained from alcohol in a student culture that stressed alcohol consumption. I did not touch alcohol back then. I received very good grades while those who hassled me had to drop out of engineering. With enemies like these, even if I am to forever remain puzzled why they hated me so much, the destruction of any bicycle I had out in the open on campus, even if securely locked, seemed inevitable. I had such a cheap bicycle because I knew it would eventually be destroyed.

The inevitable happened. My enemies seemed to have taken out their aggressions against me on my Schwinn. Spokes were kicked in, so the wheels were shaped more like potato chips then wheels. The handlebars were bent nearly backward on itself. Even the crankshaft was visibly far out alignment. The frame itself was bent. Repair was basically impossible for this much damage. I phoned the campus police. Even though my earlier getting choked, my dorm room door destroyed, and many phoned death threats had all been treated dismissively as boys-will-be-boys and good-natured-fun-gotten-slightly-out-of-hand, the destruction of a five-dollar bicycle was treated as a serious crime! What a royally screwed up set of priorities by the authorities! I was not in any risk of dying from the destruction of a cheap bicycle, but I certainly could not say the same about when I had been choked!

Riding out to the M on the Trek bicycle helped me keep my sanity during those troubling times. It was an excellent escape from the tense situation in the dorms. The miles slipping by as on the weekend I pedaled out to the M. There was nothing but my bicycle, myself, cornfields, occasional cows out in the pasture, and waving to the jogging Dr. Rosenthal.

After I had been choked and my dorm room door ruined with a hammer but before my Schwinn was destroyed, a student name Tyler stopped me on campus. I had no idea who he was or how he had heard of me. He told me that he and some friends had formed the Cornfield University Bicycling Club. They had organized it as a university-approved club. Official sanction had impressive benefits like use of a university van.

I told him that while I was interested, my studies kept me too busy for riding on weekdays.

Tyler then told me that the club was on the weekend going on a ride out to a campground on the Mississippi River. They were going to camp overnight, then ride back to Cornfield University the next day. It met my condition of not being during a weekday. My homework, lab reports, and so on were in very good shape, so I felt I could afford the time off. Plus, it would get my mind off the severe troubles I was having with the other students in my own dorm. Things had gotten so out of control by then that on Friday and Saturday nights I was staying in Albert Raichel and Josh Cistern's shared room as their Dungeon and Dragons and other fantasy role playing games lasted until three or four am. The games outlasted the end of bar time and the drunks in my dorm going to bed. I could then finally go to my own room unmolested. I truly was too scared to be in my own dorm room on my wing of the dorms when the students were their most drunk on Friday and Saturday night. Their behavior at those times was extremely hostile and threatening. Yet, at other times when they did not seem drunk, they did not seem threatening at all.

Being away on a Saturday night at a campground seemed a good change of pace from hiding out with the fantasy game players.

I no longer recall if I officially joined the Cornfield University Bicycling Club or not. I think not, but I showed up Saturday morning with my Trek loaded for camping. I had a sleeping bag and tent tied to my welded aluminum rack. I had bright yellow nylon panniers that contained rain gear, extra clothes, and other gear. Panniers are vaguely similar to backpacks, but instead of going on the back attach to a rack on a bicycle. (Fig. 2)

Yellow Pannier Mounted on Rear Rack

Figure Two: Yellow Pannier Mounted on Rear Rack

There were perhaps eight men and one woman. They seemed highly amused by my gear. It was explained that the university had provided tents as well as a van. The university might have even provided sleeping bags. None of the others had any gear on their bicycles. Hardly any of the bicycles even had a rear rack to put equipment on anyway. They showed me that backpacks, tents, and other gear had already loaded in the back of the van. I put my tent and sleeping bag in the van, but kept the yellow panniers on my bicycle. Keeping those let me retain access to my own maps, Granola bars, a small first aid kit, a tire repair kit, and a few other things.

The woman was introduced to me. She was Tyler's girlfriend. She was not cycling, but would drive the van that belonged to the university.

We got going. There are no true mountains there, but the roads are hilly around Cornfield City. The explanation I heard is the glaciers during the Ice Age stopped in that area, leaving behind many large hills of accumulated rock carried down from the north.

My touring bicycle has very low gears designed for climbing hills. I geared down and kept a steady cadence of about 60 cycles per minutes as I headed up the hills. Cadence refers to how often the pedals make a stroke around. The other cyclists grunted and shoved hard at a very low cadence. I suggested trying my method as much as their gearing would allow, as it was much easier on the knees and less tiring, but nobody paid me any mind.

We all managed to climb the hills using our individual methods.

Going down the hills turned into races. Despite my years of cycling, I was never a good sprinter. Plus, my touring bicycle did not have high gears that were very high. I did not lead in the races down the hills, but I was far from last too.

The sun shone and no rain fell. The temperature was warm, but not hot. It would be hard to come up with better weather for a ride like this.

After a journey of perhaps twenty-five miles, we reached the campground. It was not a long ride by my standards since I used to ride hundred-mile Century rides and sixty-two-mile Metric Century rides when in high school. Most of the others acted as though reaching the campground was an impressive accomplishment. The mood was triumphant as the gear was hauled out of the van. The university-owned tents were much larger than my small nylon tent. I think their tents were canvas. Having used my tent many times, I got it up quickly. It took effort and experimentation by the others figuring out what pole went where. Nobody was familiar with the university tents, but eventually all the tents were up and secure.

I had placed my tent a short distance from the others. I had searched for a place a little uphill and slightly sloped. The other tents had been placed where the ground was simply flat. I had found rainwater can pool in a location like they chose, which is why I set up where I had. My precaution did not seem needed because there seemed little chance of rain. I was just cautious, even overly cautious.

From our campsite, the broad, brown Mississippi River could be seen in an unobstructed view. For people who have not seen the river, they might expect water to be blue. Because of sediment, tannic acid, and dissolved ferric compounds (ferric refers to iron, so this amounts to dissolved rust), the water is definitely brown. I grew up next to the Wisconsin River that also has a brown color, but the brown color was deeper on the Mississippi.

Barges crawled up and down the river. The edges of the barges came down close to the water, but there were no noticeable waves, so this did not matter. A powered barge pushed or pulled various other large unpowered boats. The various boats connected together seemed more like trains on a track then boats on a river.

Activity on the river seemed like a movie played in agonizingly slow motion. Yet when I waited long enough, the barges disappeared around bends.

As best I recall, dinner was either hot dogs or hamburgers cooked over a campfire. Somebody also pulled cans of beer out of the van. The legal drinking age in Wisconsin back then was eighteen, and everybody there was at least eighteen. There was no legal issue involved. It is common today for campgrounds to allow no alcohol, but such a restriction was very rare back then. Pulling out the beers seemed normal, expected behavior at that time to everybody, including me.

I refused the offer of beer. I feared the angry and intense peer pressure to join in that I was accustomed to getting from living in the dorms. It amazed me how often people had been offended and angry merely because I would not touch alcohol. I was not trying to stop anybody else for indulging as they choose. There was some peer pressure that night, but it was not too intense. Tyler toned it down, pointing out this meant more for everybody else. Tyler seemed somebody the others naturally listened to as a leader.

There was not much beer anyway, perhaps two cans a person. Nobody acted in any way that indicated drunken behavior to me.

Darkness came quickly, as it does when far away from city lights. The slow dance of barges moving up and down the river continued throughout the night.

Eventually, all of us retired to our respective tents. I was alone in my own little tent. I paid no attention to who went into which of the university-owned tents.

Later, I awoke to the blaring of a car horn. It sounded close. I checked my watch, which showed around one in the morning. I unzipped my tent flap and stuck my head out to get a better view. A large car had pulled in close to the university-owned tents and the parked van. The car was of the type that used to be called a land yacht. Due to the darkness, I could not tell if the car was a Ford Thunderbird, Ford LTD, or what specific brand, but it was roughly the size and shape of cars of a Seventies LTD. Two men got out. I could only see them in silhouette, but they seemed young men. Fellow college students, I guessed. Also, by the way they staggered, I assumed the two had been drinking heavily.

I feared my enemies from the dormitory had followed me all the way out to this campground on the river. I looked over at the bicycles, including my much-loved Trek. Although the bicycles were all locked, they were sitting outside in the open. My Trek was vulnerable, as it never had been on campus.

Whether the two men saw my head sticking out, I do not know. I was surprised that they ignored the bicycles. Instead, they circled the several university-owned tents, shouting as they did so. They never came close to my little tent. I do not think they realized I was even part of the Cornfield University Bicycling Club group.

Among the profanities I was hearing from the two men, I picked out that they were shouting Tyler's name! I did not recognize the voices of either of the two men. They did not seem from my dorm, although they did seem to be fellow Cornfield University students who had an on-going conflict with Tyler.

I heard activity and conversation from inside the tents. It would be nearly impossible to stay asleep through the racket, but nobody dared come out. I distinctly heard Tyler's girlfriend pleading with him not to leave the tent. The two young men must have heard this too, as they marched straight to that particular tent.

They threatened and cajoled Tyler, but he stayed inside. Unable to get satisfaction that way, the two men urinated on the tent. Laughing about this insult, they staggered back to the big car. The car's rear tires spat gravel and dirt as they raced off. This was the rear tires because hardly any cars were front-wheel drive back then.

Nobody came out of a tent for about ten minutes, including me. I assume this was to make sure the two men had truly left, which is why I was waiting. Then, Tyler himself then came out. I got out of my own tent and went over to him. I suggested contacting the police. Tyler and his girlfriend seemed to know exactly who the men were, although I had no idea and due to darkness had never seen the men's faces.

Tyler vehemently refused to contact the authorities. He instead merely wanted to clean his tent. I should say instead the university tent he was using, as it was not his personal property as my tent was mine. All I had was a squeeze water bottle and a metal cup the size of a coffee cup. Somebody else came up with a very large bowl or bucket. Using that, Tyler made a couple trips to the hand-operated water pump in the campground. He poured water over the part of the tent that had been urinated on. Nothing more was done to clean the tent that night.

I did not sleep well the rest of the night because I feared the two men in the car might return, but they did not. In a way, it helped me feel better to see another Cornfield University guy persecuted. It felt strange for me to have been in a situation like this not as a target, but as practically a non-entity.


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