I woke up at the airport Best Western in Omaha and had to wait until 10 a.m. to catch a bus to Orange City, Iowa, the launch site of this year’s RAGBRAI. I would soon find out that Orange City, while on Iowa’s western border, was not on the Missouri River. That meant our ride this year would lack the symbolism that comes with dipping your tires in the Missouri on one end of the state and in the Mississippi on the other. The Missouri flows east out of Nebraska and doesn’t become Iowa’s fluid western border until it gets to Sioux City, just south of Orange City.

One concern of mine (never having done RAGBRAI) was access to toilets. That’s why I tried hard to have a bowel movement before I left the Best Western. I even read my Kindle while I sat down, which I never do. No success.

The day before, I looked out the airplane and saw the ground slowly turn from the brown and red of the Nevada desert to the pastoral green of the rain-fed farmland of eastern Nebraska. When I landed in Omaha the weather was oppressive: Ninety-eight degrees with high humidity and it was eight o’clock at night. Fortunately, God answered my prayers that it not be like that during the ride.

RAGBRAI stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. This year we went 411 miles between July 23 and the 29th. You cycle 50-60 miles a day. It began in the early 1970’s with two columnists from the Des Moines Register, who pitched it to the paper as a novel journalistic jaunt. The Register said they’d sponsor it, but the columnists had to invite “their readers” along. Now it’s attended by a mob of people (an estimated 20,000 this year) who descend into towns that are often a quarter their population.

The towns we would stop in this year were in northern Iowa, about 30 miles from the Minnesota border. These were settled by Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants. Orange City is Dutch.

My camp was set up by Pork Belly Ventures, of which I was a client. They transport your stuff in a truck, set up your tent and provided showers in a big semi-truck trailer. Did I mention they provided free beer? You can drink as much as you want. I’m not kidding!

It took a while to get used to stuff. My incorrect deployment of shower curtains in the semi-trailer meant the clothes I needed to get into got soaked. I began to realize what I should have brought with me and what I should have left at home. Despite being in the humid midwest, I didn’t see one mosquito the first night. Weird. Didn’t need that bug spray after all. Still waiting for a bowel movement, by the way.

We start rolling

John Karras and me.

It’s Tuesday now and we’ve been underway for three days. Today was a day of hot sun and stiff winds. The previous two days were much more pleasant, even though I rode over a hundred miles on Monday. I took a detour called the Karras Loop to make the day a “century” ride. As a result I got to have my photo taken with John Karras, one of the founders of RAGBRAI, who was waiting for us in Plover. That town had the worst tap water I’ve ever drunk. I filled my bottle with it but never took another sip.


On Monday I also got to see the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. It’s a two-story religious shrine that was built by a German priest who, with no paid staff, cobbled it together with quartz stones, petrified wood, sea shells, etc. It has the stations of the cross and several round chapels, showing Mary and Jesus. It was weird and wonderful.

The Grotto of the Redemption

The priest devoted himself to its creation to thank God for saving his life during a bout with a deadly disease. Some people probably think it just looks like a pile of rocks. But the visitors I saw there were awestruck. The energy and the love it took to mold its scenes and alters, stone by stone, was amazing.

The second tourist attraction on RAGBRAI was the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. It is famous for hosting the last concert of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens right before they were killed when their plane crashed in an Iowa farm field. Inside the Surf, there’s still a stage, a bar and a big wooden dance floor and they still have plenty of shows. Big bands, rock bands, country bands of national repute have played there and left behind autographed photos that cover the walls. Everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Merle Haggard.

The Surf Ballroom In Clear Lake.

After Clear Lake, RAGBRAI rolls on. In the photos I take you see bikes and helmeted riders all through them. On the road they all go at their pace. They shout “bike on” as they rejoin the ride and “car up” when they see a car coming ahead. It’s part of a code we all learn. Sometimes it seems like they state the obvious, like when everyone says “Slowing!” It’s clear to anyone with eyes that a crowded road is crawling to a halt. They say “on your left” even when they are approaching you so far to the left there’s no danger of a collision.

The Air Force has a cycling team there, more than a hundred strong. People stick stuff in their helmets for comic effect like the Kentucky Unicorns, whose helmets are topped with an erect corn cob. Batman and Robin are on the ride along with two women dressed as babies, wearing diapers and the whole nine.

The beauty of RAGBRAI is easier to see than explain. It has something to do with the place. It has something to do with the mix of people who show up, all of whom are super friendly. The thing has a sense of humor and a sense of fun and the locals think it is so fantastic. Every town along the route throws a party for the bikers and, yes, they try to sell us lots of stuff.

Lots of bikers equip their rides with boom boxes. Here comes one playing Love Shack by the B-52s. Here’s one playing Walk the Line. Here’s one playing Bruno Mars. And of course there’s lots of country. If you really want to listen to the tune they’re playing you can adjust your speed for a while to match theirs.


It rained on Wednesday and I learned another lesson about RAGBRAI. When it rains, you get wet. Trying to shield yourself from the rain while riding a bike is a losing battle. But it didn’t rain for long, and the wet weather meant the line for lunch at Mr. Porkchop was non-existent. When I got to the cashier I asked what my options are. She said they had pork chops and then they had pork chops. What would I like?

Expect this to be the cover shot for the next edition of RainWear Monthly.

In a little Czech town called Protivin I and another from NPR took on another team in a barrel fight. This is where you take a high-pressure fire hose and try to blow a barrel, suspended on a wire, to the end of the wire as the other team tries to send it in the other direction. We lost. But the guy on the other team – the one on the nozzle – was a member of the Hills volunteer fire department. He gave them the advantage, for sure. I paid $20 for a $15 T-shirt from Protivin Fire & Rescue as a donation.

On the other side of Cresco the land finally started to get hilly, and we flew into Decorah down a steep hill at a speed that made me nervous. Since there are so many bikes on the road at RAGBRAI I wonder what a terrible chain reaction could occur if you had one wipe-out or collision going down a hill at 40 MPH.

I chow down for NPR in our losing pie-eating relay race with the Des Moines Register.

In Castalia, the much-anticipated NPR/Des Moines Register pie-eating relay took place. Each person on the team had to eat a slice of pie as quickly as possible and then pass the baton (so to speak) on to the next pie eater, until the first team to consume seven pieces would be declared the winner. We lost. NPR team captain Scott Horsley was handed the lead but gave it up. I think he made a mistake by choosing to eat his slice with a fork. The rest of us ate with our hands like animals.

This absurd event actually attracted a big crowd, some chanting N-P-R! N-P-R! I didn’t think I’d take part but was tapped on the shoulder as I was listening to a gospel group across the street, and told I was needed. That bluegrass gospel band was the sublime to our pie-eating ridiculous… a big family from Nebraska that sang praises to the Lord as they played fiddles, banjos and a dobro.

My seat pal Sirese on the way to launch town, Orange City.

The very next stop after Castalia was Postville, one of Iowa’s most ethnically interesting small towns. Not long ago it became the home to a Kosher slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant. A large group of Hasidic Jews took up residence. The slaughterhouse attracted Mexican migrants to help staff the operation. Somalis also came though I’m not sure why.

As I walked down the main street two men approached me, on different occasions, and asked me if I were Jewish. I said “No” and they said “Have a nice day.” If I had been Jewish I’m not sure I would have told them. It’s a diverse population. How well they get along, I can’t say.

Pete Pays a Visit

My father-in-law Pete Reilly has lived in Ames for decades, where he’s been a biochemical engineering professor at Iowa State. Now he’s dying of cancer. He loves RAGBRAI, though only in concept because he’s never done it and has never wanted to. But he came out to see our camp and see to me. Pete was pale, bent and frail. He had just stopped using chemotherapy on his intestinal cancer because it had made him sick in so many ways. He would enter hospice soon.

Scott Horsley, Pete Reilly and me.

He was very pleased to meet two of the NPR contingent, Scott and Tom Gjelten. He saw the Pork Belly camp as generators rumbled nearby. Before leaving Pete shook my hand several times. I was quite sure it was the last time I would ever see him. I didn’t know how to say goodbye, especially to a man as unemotional as he is. I wish I had just said, “God bless you, Pete.” But you always think of these things too late.

So he, my wife Karen and our kids, Nicholas and Sophie, got into a white rental car and drove away as I waved goodbye.

What’s going on here?

The culture of RAGBAI has been the key to its success. I’ve talked about its sense of humor and it’s non-competitiveness. But there’s something deeper and it comes from the place. RAGBRAI riders come from all over the U.S. including (like me) the urban coastal zones. They come to the middle of the country that’s full of small towns, churches and people who seem to embody traditional small-town values.

Posing with tractors.

A riding companion of mine told me about his mother’s radio show in southwestern Iowa in the 50’s called Kitchen Klatter. He described it as the Internet of its time as she shared stories and information with other Iowa farm wives. RAGBRAI riders, like the towns they visit, are overwhelmingly white. It’s not a criticism, just an observation.

White liberals say they love and celebrate diversity, and the desire for diversity in my life was a reason I left Iowa. But deep down I think we wish the country’s deep cultural fault lines could be erased and somehow we could live in societies of shared values where we could trust each other (nobody on RAGBRAI locks their bikes).

I don’t think there is anywhere in the country where you can more easily imagine that kind of a place than in Iowa. I think that’s why we remember the line from Field of Dreams. Is this heaven? No. It’s Iowa.

Northeastern Iowa in the morning.

The final day

On the last day of RAGBRAI we got up early as always as an orange sun rose on the horizon. The air was cool and still. We could hear the birdsong from a nearby grove of trees. Once on the road we saw in the distance the beautiful northeast Iowa scenery with layers of green hills touched by fog. Along with being the prettiest part of our trip it was also the most challenging.

For every hill you could zoom down there was the next one you had to struggle up. When we reached the Mississippi River we dipped out tires in the river at Harper’s Ferry to observe the RAGBRAI finishing ceremony, even though we still had 11 miles to go and hills to climb before our final stop, Lansing. It’would be a total of 411 miles (more if you count the Karras loop) once we’re done.

If you’ve done RAGBRAI it seems like most people do it again. It has a way of pulling you back.



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