It’s not a vacation. It’s RAGBRAI

by Emily Kemme

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 a Burning Man for bicyclists.

RAGBRAI
For one week each July, hordes of cyclists swarm through tiny Iowa towns. Photo: S. Benson Todd

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.

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Friends celebrate success and dipped rear tires in the Mississippi River. Photo: S. Benson Todd

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 Meriweather 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.

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Home sweet home for the week was a moving target. Photo: John Todd

“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.

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The Amish dotted the roadsides, offering freshly baked pies and hand churned ice cream.

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.

RAGBRAI
Each town’s courthouse was grander than the next.

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 far 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.

Watermelon makes the perfect afternoon picker-upper! Photo: John Todd

“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.

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18 comments

Susan September 15, 2019 - 4:22 pm

All I can say is “WE DID IT!!!!!” TRAINED with beer breaks, Went off diets, Played the role, Mingled with a wide range of people,
and survived the tents!!! The watermelon shot was to mimic my bite out of the watermelon, also shaped like a smile.
Thanks for sharing my “bucket list” goal to ride the R. when it ended in my home town, and dipping my tire in the Mississippi !!
And I kindof said goodbye to Burlington, and that part of my life. So much changes from when we grow up. It is hard to go back sometimes. Thanks for writing the story so well. You have a gift with words, friend, and biking partner… to be continued!

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Emily Kemme September 15, 2019 - 8:42 pm

I’m looking forward to many more biking adventures with you! 🙂

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Diane September 5, 2019 - 11:37 pm

Hello Emily,
After chatting with you for a lengthy time at Ragbrai, you provided me the name of your recent book. Well, its past midnight and I am downloading it for my bike trip in Maine…I am leaving tomorrow!
I had a great time visiting with you…you are one of those people that make Ragbrai special, too. I think we were perched on some cardboard on the back of a trailer. We covered a lot of territory I recall- jobs, my husband’s pothole crash, medicine, Ragbrai food of course, and more until we all decided we better get riding. Enjoyed the read above and looking forward to the book!

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Emily Kemme September 6, 2019 - 7:58 pm

Hi Diane! Thank you for getting in touch — I’ve been wondering how your husband’s injury is healing? You’ve been in my thoughts! You’re so right! The incident you mentioned — sitting on the back of a trailer to eat breakfast, and in the process making connections with others, is so much in the spirit of RAGBRAI. Our conversations went all over the map and were so memorable. Have a wonderful bike trip in Maine. I hope you find the book a worthwhile read.

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Jeff August 21, 2019 - 7:40 am

Good story on my favorite organized bicycle ride … 16 years so far and counting. So many interesting places all week long and met a lot of interesting people too and so many interesting moments to remember it’s hard to pick out a favorite. Clarence was the oldest bicyclist I met … age 93 or maybe it was 94. My wife went with me for a driving tour of Iowa the week before so those memories are now added to the mix making 2019 my very favorite RAGBRAI.

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Emily Kemme August 22, 2019 - 3:53 pm

Clarence sounds like he was quite the character. How lucky you were to have met him. Iowa is without doubt a special place.

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Nancy Unruh August 17, 2019 - 6:40 pm

Loved your reflection of the this great ride. When I called my husband after the long day I told him this might be my last RAGBRAI. On Saturday I was wondering where next year’s ride would be. Your words sum up perfectly what I love about this ride. Thank you.

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Lance Dean August 16, 2019 - 9:40 am

Wish I would of rode some of RAGBRAI this year, it is an awesome ride

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Emily Kemme August 16, 2019 - 9:41 am

Definitely! Which route was your favorite one?

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Lance Dean August 16, 2019 - 9:42 am

Over the past few years my wife had done a couple days here in there, to hard to chose a favorite as it always a good time

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Sheryl Jones August 14, 2019 - 6:06 am

Hi Emily. How delightful to read about your adventurous bicycle tour! Every citizen of the US and everyone who wants two be one should read the story of your trip Across Iowa. It is such a wonderful statement about what it is to be American, live anywhere in the US, associate with souls who have the same goal, experience the rough with the satisfying. Love the pictures. Just reading it reminded me of growing up in Howard, Kansas, a small town of 1500 and what it was like to be in the 4th of July parade and meet a veteran of the civil war and would mother let me sit on his lap. There was a picture 0f that experience, but it burned when my folk’s house was lost in a fire. But I remember it and how hot it was that day and how I felt sitting on the lap of someone so old, dressed in a wool uniform, what was somehow an important moment in my life. Thank you for bringing that moment back for me.
On another note, am sending you a recipe for a delicious salad dressing. You may have it already and know the chef who developed it. If not, enjoy. Hugs to you, Sheryl

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Emily Kemme August 14, 2019 - 8:40 am

Thank you, Sheryl. Yes, there are so many memories of small towns that all meld into one memory that encapsulates what America is. I’m sorry your photo was destroyed in the fire, though. I often use photos to pull from when writing. I’ll keep an eye out for the salad dressing recipe!

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Linde Thompson August 13, 2019 - 7:43 am

Congrats on the accomplishment and the article! Loved the way you wrote about your exhaustion AND affection!

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Michelle August 10, 2019 - 7:14 pm

As I’ve said to you recently, “WOW”. I’m in awe that you guys did this!!!! Utterly amazing.

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Tim August 10, 2019 - 5:49 pm

Enjoyed the read. That must have been a ton of fun, even in the rain. I can’t ride my bike anymore but I would ride my Bent Trike! Have you ever heard of the American Discovery Trail? Talk about a way to discover the “flyovers”.

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Emily Kemme August 10, 2019 - 5:50 pm

Is that part of the Rails to Trails system? We’ve ridden parts of that, and also the Lewis & Clark trail in segments (not the whole thing). I think your Bent Trike would work great! We saw all sorts of conveyances.

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Becky Modlin August 9, 2019 - 10:02 pm

Wow!! It’s just as I remembered it. Your words express the of life of RAGBRAI to the truth of its experience and adventure🥳. Those memories will never be forgotten💖. Thank you for sharing your thoughts😋.

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Emily Kemme August 9, 2019 - 10:02 pm

It’s a very special experience. Thank you for coaching me to get ready for it!

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