Authors: Karen Musser Nortman
They had started out from southeastern Iowa early in the morning in a caravan of four camping units. The clouds formed a hammock that hung from the sky and dripped intermittently. About ten miles out of town, after a frantic cell phone call, the entire group pulled off on the shoulder. Jane Ann and Mickey Ferraro turned their red and white motorhome, the “Red Rocket,” around and went back home to turn off the oven and get the cake Mickey had baked that morning.
Waiting, Frannie and Larry Shoemaker relaxed in their pickup cab. Their thirty-foot Fleetwood Terry travel trailer blocked the rear view of the rest of the group. But in the extended side mirrors, Frannie could see Ben Terell’s yellow pickup and his and Nancy’s hybrid trailer—a small trailer with drop-down ends containing the beds. Behind them in another pickup, Rob and Donna Nowak pulled a tan Winnebago trailer festooned with swirling brown graphics. Frannie thought all they needed was a truck pulling a cage with a lion in it. Or maybe even a small elephant.
The group often camped together and once a year took a long weekend in southeastern Minnesota, camping along the Burden River and enjoying the bike trail. The Shoemakers and the Ferraros were retired; the others hoped to follow suit in the next few years. The Ferraros returned, heading on down the road, and the others pulled out behind them.
After a brief early lunch stop, the Shoemakers were again in the lead. Larry tuned the radio to an oldies station and Frannie let her mind wander. She found camping with their friends a wonderful escape. Not that she faced any great traumas at home these days; just that there was always some little job that needed doing, and Larry did not know how to procrastinate. “Maybe we should clean the basement today?” or “Since it’s a nice day, we oughta get those porch windows washed.” Always something. Frannie wasn’t lazy. She had been a teacher for thirty-five years, raised kids, done her share of volunteering. But now, she was more than willing to forego the basement to finish the book she was reading. Or do almost anything else.
When they camped, their routines were so well established; the few chores were shared by everyone and required little effort. The only work was fixing meals, and they had turned that into entertainment. The Ferraros were their most frequent companions; Jane Ann was Larry’s sister, younger by two years, and had been one of Frannie’s best friends since she and Larry were married. Mickey and Larry were close too, although no one would know it to listen to them. Ben resembled a cartoon leprechaun and was a successful physical therapist. Nancy, a community organizer, also used her skills to try and keep the group on track.
Rob and Donna had a small accounting firm. Rob could always be counted on for entertainment: funny stories, outrageous lights on his camper, and practical jokes. And Donna—well, Donna was Donna. But Frannie anticipated the conversations around the fire, the food, and the biking.
A muffled ‘pop’ interrupted her reverie and the steering wheel jerked to the right in Larry’s hands. He edged the pickup off the road and turned on his blinkers.
Frannie sat up and looked at him. “A tire?”
“I hope not,” Larry answered as they both got out. The others had passed them and pulled over as well. The problem was obvious. One of the tandem tires on the passenger side of the trailer shredded into dozens of inch wide strips sprouting from the rim like one of those giant homecoming mums. But not as pretty or festive.
Larry rubbed his short grey crewcut as the mist clouded his glasses and said, “Crap.”
The others had also disembarked and walked toward them, huddled in slickers and windbreakers. When Rob, now at the front of the line, saw the tire, he said, “There’s a town just a mile or so ahead.”
“I don’t know if I dare drive on it. I’d have to go so slow, I’d probably get rear ended.”
But, in an unexpected stroke of luck, a patrol car drew up behind the trailer. After the deputy saw the evidence of their plight, he told Larry to continue into town on the shoulder and he would run interference. The others were given directions to a tire repair shop and told to go on ahead, which they did, relieved to get out of the rain, the tire-changing, and the decision-making responsibilities.
After what seemed like a long and harrowing trip into the small town, but in reality was fairly short and safe, they pulled in at a small old garage. Several scruffy looking men sat just inside the open garage door, watching the rain drip and the world go by. Decades of dirt and grease gave the whole scene a monochromatic shade of gray. The smell of oil and stale ashtrays reached even the driveway outside.
The deputy waved and continued down the road, and Larry explained the situation to the owner. Between them, they located the spare, and the owner and one of his cronies efficiently went about replacing the shredded tire. The charge was quite minor, but came with adamant advice about replacing the trailer tires every five years, since, even though they would have low miles, they would tend to dry out and rot from sun and sitting. The men in the garage called out other advice and exchanged jibes, laughing at the travelers’ predicament. Before they left, the owner also gave Larry the names of a couple of tire dealers and suppliers on their way who could replace all of the tires with new. For more than a minor charge, of course.
Meanwhile, the Nowaks and the Terells had gone on ahead, while Mickey and Jane Ann elected to wait for Larry and Frannie in case of further mishap. But, until they reached the nearest tire dealer, Frannie kept an eye glued to the side mirror, should the spare decide to explode or fly off into the cornfields. She was much relieved when the first dealer they stopped at could replace all four tires with new ones even though it delayed them another hour and a half, and would take a chunk out of their retirement budget.
The terrain of Northeast Iowa always fascinated her. The rolling fields they had passed farther south morphed into steeper and steeper hills. The highway cut through many of the taller bluffs, exposing walls of sandstone and dolostone. Gone were the straight highways of southern and central parts of the state, replaced by twisting asphalt ribbons. The rain lifted before they reached Minnesota and, as they dropped down into the Burden River Valley, most of the clouds had even dissipated.
The sites at the River Bend campground nestled around several loops of the road in a low flat area, surrounded by the hills and bluffs of southeastern Minnesota. The main attraction of the area, a beautiful sixty-mile bike trail connecting several small towns, ran along the other side of the Burden River. The blue of the sky and green of the grass and trees were so intense, it almost hurt the eyes.
Looking around as Larry checked in at the campground office, Frannie thought it should seem like the start of a perfect weekend. However, getting here this time wasn’t ‘half the fun,’ as one of their group said all too frequently.
By the time the Shoemakers and Ferraros had parked and set up their campers in adjoining sites, it was early afternoon. Ben and Nancy were in the site on the other side of Frannie and Larry; Rob and Donna were right across the road. Rob and Ben had already dragged two picnic tables together and Donna and Nancy had covered them with bright vinyl tablecloths. The Terells’ terrier/boxer, Chloe and Nowak’s Schnauzer, Bugger were tethered near the chairs in the shade. Frannie added their old yellow Lab, Cuba, to the menagerie.
Donna and Rob walked over from their site. “We should have taken those sites up there.” She pointed up the slope to the next row, slightly more shaded. Donna was never happy with any site they had.
“These are easier to get into,” Frannie couldn’t resist pointing out.
“I suppose.” Donna grudgingly agreed. “Hey, did you notice that little trailer next to us? Isn’t it adorable?”
They looked across the road where she pointed at a small white squarish trailer with gray trim, partially hidden by Nowak’s unit.
“What is it?” Ben asked. “It doesn’t look familiar at all.”
“It says ‘Kraus’ or ‘Knaus’ or something on it,” Donna said.
“German, maybe? I’ll have to check the ‘net,” Rob said. They stared a moment and then returned to their plans.
“I’ve done an excellent job of arranging the weather for this weekend,” Mickey said. “70s and no more rain in sight.”
“Can we get that in writing?” Rob laughed at him. “Speaking of perfect weather, are we riding this afternoon?”
“We certainly have time,” Larry said. “Maybe just the stretch from Reston to Burdensville?”
“And do a little shopping at Burdensville?” Donna asked.
“And have a little pie at the Reston Pie Shoppe when we get back,” Frannie added.
“I suspected there would be pie involved when I suggested it,” Rob said. And to his wife, “If you’re shopping, do I need to drive the truck over?”
Donna grinned. “No, I have a basket. Jewelry doesn’t take much space.”
Rob rubbed his head in mock despair and they unloaded their bikes from the backs of trailers and pickup beds.
The campground was across the river from the trail; to get to the trail they first followed a path along the eastern end of the campground. The campsites on this end were seasonal sites, occupied by large trailers and fifth wheels, and rented for the summer. Some even had small wooden decks with pots of geraniums and perennial plantings around the edges. Frannie noticed that their favorite, a trailer made to look like a log cabin, sat in the same site again this year.
The group pedaled on a gravel trail to the highway, rode along the shoulder for a quarter of a mile to the bridge, and then across the bridge to Reston and the paved bike trail. At the trailhead, they pulled out water bottles for a little refreshment and then headed west toward Burdensville, five miles away.
The trail was shaded, but they caught glimpses between the trees of the sun sparkling off the river. Rob pointed out their campground across the river as they passed. Quaint bridges over picturesque ravines and streams tumbling to join the river broke up the ride. At the end of one such bridge, a small clearing held a bench and a rustic information kiosk. Mickey and Donna collapsed on the bench, while Frannie and Jane Ann examined the postings in the kiosk. One flyer printed on green paper sported a sketch of a building and information about the ‘Old Power Plant.’
Frannie peered at the sketch, and then turned around and looked across the river between an opening in the trees. She pointed and said to Jane Ann, “That’s what that building is. I’ve noticed it every year but never knew what it was.”
A large, gray, monolithic shell of a building clung to the steep cliff along the river. Discoloration streaked its face, almost like the tracks of tears. It appeared to be on the verge of being engulfed by the trees and other vegetation all around it, seeming to grow out of the cliff.
Nancy looked up from kneeling to retie one of her shoes. “What?”
“An old power plant over there,” Frannie said. “There’s a poster on the kiosk about it.”
Nancy stood. “Oh, right. There’s a great nature center on the hill above it—you can’t see it from here, but Ben and I stopped there once when we were up here by ourselves. I think there’s a hiking path from the campground to the center—maybe a mile and a half. We should put that on our schedule for the weekend.” Nancy loved schedules.
Donna rose from the bench and hobbled over to join them. Jane Ann looked back at her. “What’s the matter, Donna? Knee trouble?”
“No,” Donna said a little sheepishly. “I just got these shoes, and I thought they were
cute, but they didn’t have my size so they might be a little small.” Donna, being the shortest, barged to the front of the group of women. “What are you looking at?”
“That building—it’s an old power plant,” Frannie said. It dominated the other side of the river.
“Oh, wow,” Donna said, swinging her camera up and moving down the sloping bank as she said it. Her foot caught in a tree root and she started to pitch forward. She caught herself by grabbing a small tree trunk, but not before one of its branches slapped her on the face.
“Ow! Dammit!” she yelped. Nancy rushed to her aid, while Frannie and Jane Ann exchanged wry glances. These antics were to be expected with Donna. Jane Ann, a retired nurse, examined the scratch when Donna got back up to the sidewalk and pronounced it survivable.
“It feels awfully close to my eye,” Donna said, as she limped back to her bike.
They mounted their bikes again and, with some false starts and a little wobbling, continued on the path. Since their speed was moderate, to be generous, they were often passed and more frequently met by other cyclists and a few hikers.
As they neared Burdensville, the path crossed another wooden bridge over a deep ravine and wound up a gradual hill. Coming around a gentle curve, a pair of hikers approached them. It was like double vision. Two middle-aged women in matching cowboy hats, printed t-shirts, and khaki shorts moved along briskly. Their faces and blonde hair were identical, their fanny packs slung in the same manner, their strides in unison.
Frannie’s group met and glided by the two hikers, but they caught a glimpse of quick smiles and nods of greeting. Frannie looked at Donna, riding next to her, and saw the same look of astonishment that she felt on her own face.
“Wow,” was all Donna could say, uncharacteristically brief. Further discussion faded as they focused on climbing the gentle grade of the hill. Before long they rode into the outskirts of town and concentrated on watching for stop signs at street crossings and signs pointing to the business district.