Chapter 4, The Midwest
Blood Red Sunsets and Green River Phosphates
We know we’re in the midwest now. At an Onawa, Iowa cafe, the menu lists Jell-O as a vegetable and apricots as a salad.
We picked up our mail at the post office and began meeting townspeople. They are very friendly and excited about RAGBRAI (The DesMoines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) coming in a few days.
We camped at Lewis and Clark State Park on a lake formed by an abandoned oxbow of the Missouri river. A lovely spot, but the mosquitoes are voracious and plentiful, It was part of the river when the expedition came through here, and the place where they are believed to have camped. The west still lay before the explorers when they were here; for us it lay behind. Midwestern adventures await us.
We spent five days waiting for the start of RAGBRAI, tomorrow, July 23. We promised to meet our friend Carol Booth here for the ride and I have been worried about making it since Montana; obviously didn’t need to.
This is really the only hard deadline we have. From now on it will be only the coming of autumnal cold that will drive us on.
I’ve come to dislike deadlines of any kind. We don’t wear watches, the sun is our timepiece, and accurate for our purposes. Often we don’t know the date until I fire up Duo (my computer) and look at the time/date desk accessory. I have never punched a time clock, but have worked tight deadlines in journalism, and was once obsessive about arriving on-the-minute for business appointments. Never again. Anything that requires more accuracy than the sun is obsessive.
Claire and I have been on the road together for over two months now. We’ve met a lot of wonderful and interesting people, and we are each other’s favorite cycling partner, but we missed our cycling friends back on the Olympic Peninsula. Each year we bike a few thousand miles with them, and we were missing that camaraderie.
What to do.
We decided to bicycle across the state of Iowa with 10,000 new friends.
Each year in July, the Des Moines Register sponsors a week long bicycle ride across the state through rural areas and small towns. They call it RAGBRAI: Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Ten-thousand people cycling together for one whole week. Sometimes you could look across the rolling hills of Iowa and see them strung out for five miles and disappearing over the horizon.
What a great spectacle. And the people of Iowa love it. On the day the riders pass through their town, they take the day off from the fields of corn to help the boy scouts sell lemonade or the Kiwanas flip pancakes. They drive out to the county road and sit in their pickups to watch and wave at the passing throngs. They sit in their yards and in porch swings and cheer the riders on to the end of the day. They often yelled out a question about where Claire and I were from when they saw our U.S. and Washington flags flying from our fishing pole.
Each year the route is different to give return riders some variety. It also gives civic groups all over the state a shot at some of the money to be made feeding the hungry cyclists.
Anyone who ever wondered why someone would subject themselves to the pain of long distance bicycling would find the answer here each summer in Iowa when RAGBRAI rolls through. We cycle so we can eat huge quantities of food and not gain weight. Not too much anyway.
Check out the tan lines
After the first day of roadside temptations I decided the ride should be renamed Grazing Across Iowa. I think most of the riders probably ended up gaining some weight even after seven days and nearly 500 miles of sometimes hilly cycling; one of the days covers 98 miles.
Some of the specialties of Iowa include: fresh from the field sweet corn, home cured bacon, pork tenderloin, pork burger, smoked pork chops, smoked turkey drumsticks, home-made ice cream and pie, Muscatine melons, cookies and pastries…
You get the idea. Good home cooked food, served by friendly Iowans. It was enough to make me forget the unrelenting heat (90 degrees) and humidity (80%) of the midwest for the duration.
Many people think of the midwest landscape as being boring, including the people who live there. Compared to Washington state’s mountains and seas, the landscape is not spectacular. But, Iowa is really quite lovely in a bucolic sort of way and the people are a little laid back (in my mind a plus). And they really know how to give a great week-long party.
The landscape is almost all fields of corn and soybeans, with a few deciduous trees in the towns and along streams, and blue chicory, black-eyed-Susan’s, sunflowers and queen Anne’s lace lining the ditches. The farms are immaculately kept with glorious flower gardens. I’ve seen cereal box farm pictures not nearly as pretty.
Some of the small towns are so unchanged by time that only the addition of modern vehicles spoils the illusion of turn-of-the-century charm. One of our new friends, Steve Stevens, rode an original penny farthing bicycle (the ones with the huge front wheel) in turn-of-the-century costume, his fox horn echoing across cornfields and down tree lined streets of Victorian homes. It was easy to imagine that earlier, simpler time.
One of my favorite towns, West Liberty, had an old fashioned drugstore and soda fountain. We enjoyed a phosphate called a Green River, our elbows resting on the cool green marble of the counter. What a perfect complement to a 95 degree afternoon.