A couple weeks ago, we took a bike ride across flyover country. And as we cycled through Jefferson County, Iowa, I happened upon a guy on a lime green bicycle wearing a We the People jersey. The preamble of the United States Constitution was printed on it, interspersed with red, white, and blue.
The American heartland, middle America, or whatever label you apply, is that enormous swath of prairie, cornfield, and undulating hills. We were partaking in an annual tradition begun in 1973 by John Karras and Don Kaul, two Des Moines Register journalists who accepted a challenge to bicycle across the state. More publicity stunt than anything, at the time, a handful of folks tagged along, including Clarence Pickard of Indianola, who at age 83, met the challenge while riding a women’s Schwinn, wearing a pith helmet and sporting woolen long underwear beneath his pants.
47 years later, it’s called RAGBRAI — the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
In a sense, it’s a a happening of sorts, or as one person I described it to put it, RAGBRAI is the Burning Man for bicyclists.
I like to think of it as Iowa’s opportunity to show off, a way to spend the state’s annual tourism dollars in one fell swoop, a chance to cram the carbon footprint of 15,000 bicyclists into one week.
The route varies yearly, with communities vying for the chance to put their towns on display. Each one has a pet fundraiser or several, from grandstands to church furnaces to children’s after school programs. Each one is worthy.
But lest you think RAGBRAI is a sort of joyride, think again. RAGBRAI is a test of stamina, a pedal — in our case — of 462 miles, from Council Bluffs to Keokuk. You dip your rear tire in the Missouri River, your front in the Mississippi seven days later.
As with most things, there is a process.
First, you are accepted to ride. You, and 8,500 of your soon-to-become closest friends — thousands of humans cluttering the roadways while perched on self-propelled, easy-to-topple vehicles, one that with each swerve to the left or right comes the possibility that it will be your last swerve on Earth.
We received our letter on May 1. It’s a bit like when Harry Potter received his letter by owl informing him he’d been accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, only multiplied by 8,500. That’s the number of registered riders; on most days the ride swells to well over 15,000. Not all who ride are registered.
Dr. K and I looked at each other with excitement when we received our letters. “We get to ride RAGBRAI,” we said in unison.
And then reality hit. “We have to get ready to ride RAGBRAI.”
The organizers recommended training, but amounts varied. One source suggested logging 500 miles before dipping your rear tire in the starting river; others cautioned no less than 1,000. We came in a hair above the first and miles below the second.
“It’s an adventure,” we repeated to ourselves. “It’ll build character.”
Along with logging miles, we began collecting things. We were going to be in the middle of the Iowan wilds!
As with most adventurers, we felt a kinship with Meriwether Lewis as he checked off equipment to forge a path from St. Louis to the west coast. Amazon boxes began arriving daily. Camping gear, rain gear, all manner of bicycle necessities, and most necessary of all, disposable paper seat covers for the ever-essential KYBO, flyover terminology for port-a-potty.
After surviving the first night in Council Bluffs in a city of over 300 tents, deluged by rain, and scared shitless by lightening, we awoke on Day 1 to a continuing torrential downpour and clambered on our bikes.
“At least the lightening stopped,” we acknowledged nervously.
Throughout that week, we peddled alongside every sort of wheeled conveyance: there were skaters on boards, skaters on skates, recumbent bikes and those powered by hand. There were cyclists pulling trailers with children, with boom boxes, with coolers full of ice. Two-wheelers, tandems, and tricycles — the strongest of strongmen rode a Crossfit machine on wheels. We cheered the Pride of the U.S. Air Force, with a team of the fittest of the fit, and we complimented Clan Lindsay, dressed in a wide swath of wool tartan.
Half way through the week, in a little hamlet I can’t recall the name of, on a sign in front of a business that is only a blur, the letters read, “EAT. DRINK. SLEEP. BIKE. REPEAT.”
RAGBRAI is like the movie Groundhog Day, except instead of a charming hotel you sleep on an air mattress in a tent, one with sheets that wick up dewy ground moisture like a sponge. After a day of riding through Iowa’s humid summer, you find yourself shivering at 3 am, with damp sheets and a groggy awareness that the alarm will go off in a couple of hours so you can get up and do it again.
And if you think about getting back on that bicycle, you think you surely can’t. And yet, you straddle it and your brain takes over the legs. There is a certainty of rollers, of humidity and heat, and the guarantee of another hill.
But at every town, the red carpet is unrolled. There are the shy and polite Amish dotting the roadside, selling juicy peaches fresh-picked from their orchards, churning out homemade ice cream with maple syrup, perfect for dolloping on a slice of apple pie. Their pride is quiet, yet no different from that of the 16-year-old waitress who served us dinner in Indianola’s town square cafe.
Each town is much like the next, the larger ones hosting mid-day food trucks that follow the bikers no less than cooks followed Napoleon’s army. There were evening revelries around courthouses of unlikely grandeur in this land of rustic barns, waving cornfields, and ever-present hog farms. This is the Iowa we saw, hogs and corn, bicycles and blue sky.
“You’re in the middle of Iowa, not the moon,” the RAGBRAI literature advised.
And Iowa, in its annual weeklong celebration of Iowa, celebrates more than simply itself.
It was a week where petty politics, grievances, and Twittering were shut off — with 15,000 cyclists, support vehicles, and curious throngs on hand to watch the spectacle, the internet was a morass of dead space. It was a week spent in search of morning breakfast bowls overflowing with scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheese, then succumbing to necessity, standing in line at the KYBO before clambering back on the bicycle. It was a week of showering in 18-wheelers, the water all too hot, the towels all too skimpy.
We talked with fellow cyclists about how much farther it was until the next killer hill would arise in the distance, and how long we could stress our legs until the next break. Caution and care became part of the herd mentality, and if you happened to leave a roll of cash in a KYBO, the next user was certain to dash out to find you and hand it back.
Thousands of bicycles and not a lock to be seen. On RAGBRAI, you don’t worry about theft. You worry about spotting the next pothole so it doesn’t kill you.
RAGBRAI is sunshine, cantaloupe ice cream, and the promise of Mr. Porkchop’s pink school bus only six miles away. It’s pie in the afternoon and Bloody Mary’s at 7 in the morning; it’s beer all day, should you want it. It’s pickle juice and slices of watermelon wider than a grin. It’s a nonstop party, even in the rain. But it’s also the hamlet of Walnut, crisscrossed with antique shops from wherever you look.
“Flyover country.” It’s a term coined by writer Thomas McGuane in a 1980s article for Esquire.
He came to the phrase after expressing his frustration with the realities of air travel. “‘I recall being annoyed that the places I loved in America were places that air travel allowed you to avoid.′”
The ride is a reminder that Iowa is not the moon. It’s a worthy reminder that we are all Americans together. Rain or shine, with potholed country roads or highways smooth as glass. There is pride of community and pride of place.
It’s an opportunity to see a part of our country at a snail’s pace. Unless you’re zooming downhill.