The Covered Bridges of Sugar Creek
It looks different today ... much different. This cool water flows by me now on its long, slow amble to the Gulf, first meeting the Wabash River, and then joining up with the Ohio River, and finally the Mississippi. This is Sugar Creek as I see it today, spanning perhaps a couple hundred feet as it nears its confluence with the Wabash, after carrying canoes and kayaks through a couple of state parks and draining 807 square miles of farm fields and other land of excess water. It certainly didn’t look like this yesterday when I left my home in Sugar Creek Township of Clinton County, near the headwaters of Sugar Creek and only one good day’s bike ride to the northeast.
If the creek were to tell its story to you, it would likely include the glaciers. I’m not talking about the namby-pamby glaciers we see today. Glacial ice sheets of biblical proportions is what I’m talkin’ about, large ones, capable of seriously flattening as a mere afterthought the northern two-thirds of the state of Indiana and laying the foundation for the creek and the bike journey I’ve undertaken. And she would probably describe her millenia-long efforts to cut through sandstone bedrock near an ancient inland sea. And perhaps she’d talk about how she courses under the bridges of a different era, built from trees grown along her banks by local craftsmen who were her neighbors.
But my part of the story begins yesterday. The source of Sugar Creek is about five miles west of my home as the crow flies, a tad more if the crow goes by road bike. Okay, so under the cattails the creek looks like any other farm drainage ditch as it leaves Tipton County, but even the mightiest of rivers have humble beginnings.
My own journey would start from my home at 7:00 a.m. on a cool, cloudless June morning along a route that I pieced together using Google Maps and Charlie Myer’s Back Roads of Indiana: Collection of Paved Road Maps, a wonderful resource for Hoosier bikers showing all of our paved roads by county.
Unlike car travel, the weather and terrain mean everything to a biker. And much of the first 50 miles, I suppose, might be considered by some to be scenery that only an aging farm boy like me could love. To describe the miles of asphalt through the corn and soybean fields as “gently rolling” would be an overstatement; “gently darn flat” would be closer to the truth. But, it is easy biking, and traffic is almost nonexistent. I cross over natural streams and man-made surface ditches, and various combinations of the two. Typically, the land is underlain with a network of clay or plastic tile. Soils in this area tend to suffer from too much water, 100-year-drought years notwithstanding. Not that it rains too much, but due to the soil composition and topography (think glaciers, again), the soils hold the moisture to the extent that these soils tend to be classified as "poorly drained." Consequently, soil productivity can often be improved by adding artificial drainage, and its relevance to the creek is that we end up with man-made tributaries, so to speak, along with the more natural ones.
In addition to witnessing the approximately 93-mile-long progression of Sugar Creek from its rather modest beginnings to the natural beauty of full-blown creek status, I’ll be crossing over six of the state’s more than ninety remaining covered bridges. Covered bridges were built for a reason: They lasted longer. Wikipedia reports that bare wooden bridge decks might have a typical life of ten to fifteen years. But by putting a roofed structure on top, useful life could be extended to seventy to eighty years. Although economic reasons were undoubtedly the driving force for a covered bridge, I’m sure that many a horse-drawn traveler welcomed the shelter during a pop-up thunderstorm. Perhaps more speculative, but no less important to those brave souls willing to try, covered bridges were rumored to be places where a private kiss might be stolen from the courted. A different era, indeed.
The first covered bridge I come to, located just west of Darlington in Montgomery County, is the Darlington Bridge (1868). The 166-foot oak and poplar bridge was funded by local citizens and the county. The Howe Truss was the second-most widely adopted bridge design used in Indiana.
By this time what began as a day just cool enough to be perfect has morphed into a day hot enough to curl the corn. The turkey buzzards circling overhead are a little unnerving. However, I suppose that I’m not cooked well enough for them yet. They leave me alone to see Deer’s Mill Bridge (1878), 275 feet long and positioned on the east end (upstream side) of Shades State Park, Montgomery County. The Burr Arch Truss design used here was the most popular bridge design in Indiana and was used in five of the six covered bridges currently spanning Sugar Creek.
Part of the Sugar Creek story undoubtedly involves the Shades and Turkey Run State Parks, both being beautiful natural attractions worthy of being a destination visit. The Narrows Bridge (1882) sits between the two parks on the east end of Turkey Run in Parke County and spans 121 feet (141 with overhangs).
The state park campground was full, so I pitch my camping hammock at a private campground across the road after a day of 84 miles.
My middle day begins with a visit to the Cox Ford Bridge (1913), 176 feet long and positioned on the west end of Turkey Run State Park. This bridge actually replaced a steel bridge lost during the 1913 flood. Cox Ford Bridge is one of the two Sugar Creek bridges still in service.
Jackson Bridge (1861) is 207 feet long and the longest single-span covered bridge in the state. This bridge, fifth oldest in the state, is also still in service.
Finally, the West Union Bridge (1876), north of Montezuma, is 315 feet long and about one mile from the confluence with the Wabash River.
On the third day, the main objective is returning home, and with good biking but very hot weather, the highlights are stopping for breaks. Walking into a local eating establishment, be it a bar, diner, or coffee shop, usually carries with it some excitement, as well as a little trepidation. The excitement comes from an eagerness to take a break after several miles on the bike, perhaps even an air-conditioned one, and an opportunity to sample some home-baked splendor or, at least, enjoy a cold beer. The trepidation arises because almost without fail there is a common behavioral reaction to a biker’s arrival. There is nearly always a very brief, albeit noticeable, quieting of the room upon the locals’ first sighting of a sunburned stranger in spandex. But, the mild uneasiness quickly vanishes with the first question of either “Where’ve you been?” or “Where are you going?” Conversations tend to start easily when you’re dressed in spandex.
These local establishments are every bit a part of the travel experience to be appreciated, on par with the many other new or natural sights typically enjoyed by a bike traveler. Each establishment is unique, but also in many ways similar. The coffee cups don’t always match. And the napkin dispensers sometimes appear to be straight from the fifties. But almost always, the locals are courteous and gracious, and the experience is a delightful, welcome respite from the road and a reprieve from the sameness of a franchise operation. Such is the case with Sigler’s (Mechanicsburg), Allen’s Country Café (Crawfordsville), and Dick and Judy’s Café (Jamestown), to name but a few that I visited.
As the final day draws to an end and I’m racing the sun home, I make the final crossing of Sugar Creek, only a few miles from my driveway. It’s worth stopping on the bridge and reflecting on the journey for a moment. I don’t suppose many can claim that I’ve been riding through the most beautiful of American countryside. Productive, yes. Drop-dead scenic? Not always, but sometimes. But, it’s home, and following the course of Sugar Creek was both meaningful and enjoyable. I look down now to a stream that I could almost jump across, and I watch the slow-moving water for a moment, water that in a few days will be crossing under the same covered bridge at Turkey Run from which I watched canoeists and tubers floating along. And, although I’m tired, this same water will, without fatigue, continue on to join up with the Mississippi for the final, long push to New Orleans. Hmmm. Bourbon Street ... beignets on the riverfront ... the Big Easy. Hmmm. Sounds like a bike ride in there somewhere.
Tip for this adventure: Patronize the local diners, coffee houses, and cafes. It will contribute to a unique travel experience, and the locals will appreciate your business.
Favorite local bike shop: Hodson's Bay Company, West Lafayette.