Bridges of Madison County - Bridging the Gap - CycleBlaze

May 19, 2020

Bridges of Madison County

After cycling up Twister Hill, I got to thinking about other Iowa landmarks memorialized in books and/or films. Thus was the inspiration for today’s ride. Bridges of Madison County, a book by Robert James Waller, Jr., was one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, staying on the NY Times best seller’s list for 164 consecutive weeks. Waller, a native Iowan, wrote the book in eleven days – a romance novella about an adulterous four-day love affair between an Iowa housewife and a photographer for National Geographic. Published in 1992, Bridges received decidedly mixed reviews, with people either loving it or tortured by it – the novella was described as one of the “great romantic crocks” similar to Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, widely panned books from my younger days that also rose to the top of the NY Times bestseller list. More favorably received was the film version directed by Clint Eastwood who also starred as the photographer Robert Kincaid. Meryl Streep was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of the Italian war bride Francesca.

Scene from the film Bridges of Madison County features Meryl (Francesca, an Italian WWII war bride now an Iowa housewife), Clint (Robert Kincaid, National Geographic photographer), and the Roseman Bridge
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Madison County is located southwest of Des Moines and is renowned as the birthplace of John Wayne and the covered-bridge capital of Iowa. A total of nineteen covered bridges were built in Madison County during the late 19th century; of these, six remain. All are lattice truss bridges that were originally covered with relatively inexpensive plank siding and roofs to protect the heavier, more substantive timber trusses. I planned a route that would start in Winterset (the county seat) and include four of the six bridges – one located in the Winterset City Park and the other three on gravel roads that crisscrossed the Middle or North Rivers, tributaries of the Des Moines River.

I was joined today by Peggy, a friend who had recently purchased a gravel bike and was keen to get in some gravel grinding. It was the first time during the pandemic that I was riding with someone else, but we have both been following all the guidelines for a virus-free life and were traveling to Winterset in separate vehicles.

Despite the earlier predictions of a sunny day in the 70’s, it was chilly, cloudy and drizzling when we arrived in Winterset. The first bridge - the 79-foot long Cutler-Donahoe Bridge - was just a quick hop from our parking spot in the city campgrounds. Currently located in Winterset City Park, the bridge originally spanned the North River but had been moved to the park in 1970.

As the covered bridges are located on county gravel roads, about three-fourths of ride today would be on small unpaved roads. Adding some spice to the adventure would be hills. Unlike the relatively flat terrain of north central Iowa, Madison County is located in the Southern Iowa Drift Plain region of the state, a landform characterized by a multitude of streams and rolling hills. Shortly after leaving the city park, we left the pavement and headed downhill toward the Middle River and Holliwell Covered Bridge, located just a few miles from town. To our delight, the road surface was hard-packed dirt – the best for gravel riding.

Starting out from the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge
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Built in 1870, the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge was moved from it's location on the North River to this site in Winterset City Park. The bridge is notable for it's pitched roof.
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Heading down to Holliwell Bridge
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One can follow the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway to view all of the bridges, or you can just plot your own route on RideWithGPS. Some overlap is likely.
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At 122 ft, Holliwell Bridge is the longest of the six covered bridges that remain in Madison County
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The Holliwell Bridge sits at it's original location on the Middle River
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The lattice interior found in all of the covered bridges in Madison County
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We continued southeast for a couple of miles, climbing away from the Middle River then zig-zagging south and west on the uplands. The lush landscape was mainly pastureland, interspersed with croplands ribboned with green drainage strips. Here, smaller dairies and farmsteads replaced the large grain farms of Story County, and I was stopping way too frequently for animal photos. The cloud cover contributed to the stillness of the day – traffic was virtually non-existent and the only sounds were birdsongs and the occasional barking dog.

It was in this idyllic setting that we had a near-serious dog encounter. A large herding type with two differently colored eyes came tearing across the lawn and into the road – snarling and teeth bared. A young boy was in the yard and I implored him to call off his dog while I dismounted, carefully keeping the bike between me and the dog (thank you Scott Anderson for the dog-encounter tip). The dog retreated, but bolted back towards us whenever we attempted to move on. This retreat/attack mode continued for several minutes until finally the boy raced to the back door to get his mother. With the dog finally secured, we cautiously pedaled on, changing our route so as not to round the corner in front of the house. Keeping our calves intact was definitely worth a few extra miles.  

White barn with leaning tree and turkey vulture
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Scott AndersonWhat a great bird shot! Nice barn, too.
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1 month ago
The varied landscape of Madison County
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I spot some calves
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A friendly horse looking for treats - sorry, nothing today
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GOAT - not the greatest of all time but among my favorite farm animals
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Small pink barn - a dollbarn?
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In my relatively limited experience, I’ve observed that larger roads tend to smooth out variations in gradient while gravel roads more closely follow the natural terrain. Nonetheless, I was a bit taken aback when we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with what can only be described as a roller coaster - I couldn’t even see the bottom of the first drop! I later learned that this was the famed Rippy Dumps, a mile plus ribbon of road where local youth seek the thrill of "hill jumping".  I was a bit cautious on the first descent - leery of encountering loose gravel - but eventually relaxed and even enjoyed the experience. It did help that my new gearing made the uphills relatively pain-free. After turning north, there was a final downhill through woodlands as we neared the Roseman Bridge, where we planned to stop for lunch.

 Waiting at the bottom of the hill was the dreaded Level B road sign, indicating a low maintenance road. Even more disconcerting was the admonition to “Enter At Your Own Risk.” A detour would require several additional miles and the road surface seemed passable, so we carried on. It was not long before we met our “risk factor” – a stream running across the road. Peggy elected to wade through the water while I opted to forge ahead atop Vivien George. We both made it safely across with little more than wet feet – hers a bit more wet than mine. Once across, we were on a most delightful road that wound through the woods before emerging at a small church nestled in a grove of tall oaks. A perfect spot for lunch!

The Rippy Dumps
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Rachael AndersonWow! That looks really hard!
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterTo Rachael AndersonIt looks harder than it is - you do get some momentum on the downhill. The first uphill was the hardest - it was the steepest and I braked too much on the downhill approach. You'd probably crush it!
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Susan CarpenterTo Scott AndersonMy thought exactly!
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Bird on the fly
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Two steers near, and more barely visible in the distance
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Last downhill before Roseman Bridge
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The signs say it all
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Not a very big river to cross, more like a small stream. No problem
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This wonderful Level B road was our reward for very little risk
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The Oak Grove Community Church, an excellent spot for lunch
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We almost missed the Roseman Bridge – approaching it from the “backdoor” - off a small abandoned road. Built in 1883, the 107-foot Roseman Bridge spans the Middle River at its original location. Crossing the bridge, we arrived at the main parking area and closed gift shop, evidence of the popularity resulting from its   featured role in The Bridges of Madison County.

Roseman Bridge - looks like it's had some new paint since Meryl and Clint were here
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Roseman Bridge, built 1883; Vivien George, built 2018
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The 107' long Roseman Covered Bridge sits at its original location on the Middle River
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Leaving Roseman Bridge, we headed north into the wind for Hogback Bridge, our last bridge stop of the day. After four miles of rolling gravel, we crossed State Highway 92 onto Earlham Road, our first paved road of the day. Though the traffic was light, the headwinds kept us on task and we soon crossed the North River and headed east on gravel roads that wound through woodlands and pastures. Turning south, we dropped down to the North River and the Hogback Bridge, named for the nearby limestone ridge. In keeping with the other bridges, Hogback Bridge was a lattice truss bridge, painted red and flanked by white rail fencing.

Shoes on Fenceposts - A bit of art in rural Iowa?
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Air-conditioned barn
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Wild phlox and deadwood
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Horses grazing on a hillside
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Two bicycles at Hogback Covered Bridge
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Two cyclists at Hogback Covered Bridge practice social distancing while shooting a selfie
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The 97-foot Hogback Covered Bridge spans the North River, and remained in use by vehicles into the mid-1990s
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Our tour of covered bridges complete, we made our way back to Winterset, choosing the well-shouldered US Highway 69 for the last few miles into town. There was a quick stop at the Kum and Go for chocolate milk, which we enjoyed on the steps of the Madison County Courthouse. I’d come through Winterset years ago for BRAMCO – a bike ride around Madison County, all on paved roads. I found it to be a charming town, one with a central courthouse square ringed by a vibrant business district. With more time today, I delighted in the charm of the town – well appointed buildings with interesting roof lines. A final stop at the John Wayne Birthplace and we were back at our respective cars.

Madison County Courthouse, Winterset IA
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Post-ride snack on the steps of Madison County Courthouse
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Many of the retail stores in Winterset were open and lots of folks were out and about
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In Winterset
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John Wayne Dr is a main road through Winterset
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Unfortunately, the Iowa Quilt Museum was closed. I would have like to take a look inside as I've seen some beautiful, intricate quilts at the Iowa State Fair
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In Winterset
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Madison County Strong
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Birthplace of John Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907
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For me, the day had been a huge success – the bridges were nice but turned out to be just waypoints on a wonderful scenic ride up and down the rural roads of Madison County. About 90% of the “gravel” surface was hard-packed dirt, making for easy and safe riding.  Peggy was more than tolerant of my frequent stops and even took a few photos for herself. We’re looking forward to our next great Iowa gravel adventure.

Home
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Today's ride: 46 miles (74 km)
Total: 602 miles (969 km)

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Rachael AndersonI’m so glad neither of you got bitten by the dog! I’m so impressed by the wonderful pictures and the climbing you did!
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterThanks for the nice comments Rachael. The ride was a nice change of pace from the flat farmland around Ames.
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