Biking Pumps Life into Rural Heartland

The High Trestle Bridge near Madrid, Iowa.

As Labor Day signaled a symbolic change of seasons, a bike ride through small towns and Midwest farmland can put things in perspective. The High Trestle Trail in central Iowa provides an unfolding mural of rural landscape that demonstrates some of the shifts occurring in the Heartland.

A recent series in the Des Moines Register explained why many small towns are struggling. As farm size grows and high-tech methods become popular, farm population shrinks and communities suffer. Ironically, a low-tech throwback–the bicycle–has opened a

The bridge at night.

promising avenue for some towns. The High Trestle Trail is one of many bike paths in the state, but it also features a stunning work of art–a 13-story high railroad structure spanning the Des Moines River.

The lowland area south of the trail once harbored coal mines, and now the bridge is lined with steel frames that mimic the old tunnel supports. The path over the river gives the rider a flavor of the claustrophobic mine shafts, but it also highlights the beautiful, expansive view of the countryside.

Coal mining has become just an entry in the local history books–now the bike trail pulls in cyclists from near and far. Families with babies in tow and bike clubs with weird names file along the 25-mile trail. Bars, smoothie stands, and nearby Main Street shops benefit from the traffic. During summer, bands play or special events are arranged, and since the bridge is lit up until midnight, many come by bike or foot to enjoy the psychedelic ambience.

The Flat Tire is one of many businesses benefiting.

Bikers are a hungry, thirsty lot, so the pubs have prospered the most. The Whistling Donkey and the Firetrucker are at either end, with the Nite Hawk and the Flat Tire somewhere along the way. 

Bike trails throughout the country have added a small but pulsating artery to small-town economies–and nothing demonstrates that more than Ragbrai, the annual week-long ride across the state. Started in 1973, the migration now has an official 10,000 riders, but on most days, that number swells by many thousands more. For further information about this ride, check The Des Moines Register’s official Ragbrai site, or click onto this blog to learn about the people and rural ambience that make the ride special. 

by dan gogerty (top two pics from and third pic from

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