RAGBRAI 2021

The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, aka RAGBRAI, skipped a year in 2020 thanks to the pandemic but in 2021 I was ready and eager to do my 4th bike trip. And we did, during the last week of July.

Our NPR cycling team was familiar. Scott Horsley (of course) along with Richard Harris and Les Cook. Our Iowa partners known as Team Groucho featured Shenandoah’s Bill Danforth (of course), the Birkby Brothers, now of Montana and Seattle, Bill’s daughter Betsy and two dentists, Matt and Jaye. He was known from our rides past. She was a new face on the RAGBRAI landscape.

The 2021 route took us from Le Mars on the western edge of the state to Clinton, on the Mississippi River. Our overnight towns were all just north of central Iowa and they were mostly places I’d never been, even though I grew up in the state.

Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Le Mars, Anamosa and Sac City. They were places as strange and exotic to me as to anyone who’d never set foot in Iowa.

Me and Goats

 

We had hosts in every overnight town. These are people who Bill Danforth could find some personal connection with… we’re talking many degrees of separation. But they were close enough so that that Bill, a man of consummate charm, could call them up and ask if it would be okay if we camped on their floor for one day of RAGBRAI.

Le Mars calls itself the Ice Cream capital of the World, due to the long-time presence there of the ice cream company Wells Blue Bunny. Our first host was a man who worked for the Wells company for 30 years, until corporate restructuring forced him to lay off many of the people he knew. He ultimately created a downsizing plan that eliminated his own job. After what he’d been through, he was happy to do it.

Anne sitting atop a sidewalk paver made by her grandfather’s Waterloo construction company.

In Waterloo, we stayed with a gay couple who were involved in politics. The older of the two was a county supervisor. They lived in an old brick house, once owned by a family that ran a prosperous meat packing company. It was a three-story house that had an impressive staircase and one-time servants’ quarters on the upper floors.

One member of the NPR team, Anne Olesen, was approaching the front door when she looked at a sidewalk paver that bore then name of her grandfather and his construction company. Anne is a Waterloo native.

It’s a Team-Groucho custom for us riders to give a gift to our host families. It should be something small and inexpensive but something that tells our hosts something about ourselves. One member of the NPR team called Jim caught us all off guard when he told the story of how he just learned through genetic testing that his father was not his biological father. His biological father was a man he knew, his Italian Godfather (no joke), and so he gave our hosts a pin showing the Italian and American flags.

Jaye and me posing in front of the old Wonderbread factory in Waterloo.

Jim was due to meet with his elderly mother in the Chicago suburbs right after RAGBRAI to get things sorted out, to the extent such things can ever be sorted out. She and the man who raised Jim are still married.

I mentioned Jaye. She is a dentist who lived for 14 years in Montana, where she still has a home, but recently moved to Clinton, Iowa to work another 12 months to become vested in a federal pension. She didn’t quite know what her job would entail. It entailed working as a dentist at a max-security federal prison. Her first two weeks on the job showed that she would have to carry a firearm and her patients would be handcuffed. I guess I don’t need to say she had some serious questions on whether she would see it through.

One night Jaye and I drank wine at a family-room bar and talked after the rest of our team had turned in. One of our hosts half-jokingly told us it was “closing time.” She invited me to visit her in Montana. Maybe I will, but we’ll see. The future hasn’t happened yet.

About half of our cycling team worked in the news business and we biked along the county roads of Iowa, trying our best to ignore what was going on. More and more cases of COVID, caused by the Delta Variant. That’s what was going on.

The Iowa River

We were in Iowa to celebrate the chance to finally meet up and have a group adventure, and it started to sound like we’d once again be seeing that liberation in the rearview.

We rode our team van back to Des Moines to catch flights back home, and some of us camped in Betsy Danforth’s home which was in the country, but also very close to the Des Moines airport. The house was designed by her husband Ryan, an architect, and it has great floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the farm fields and forested patches nearby. A deer ambled past the house one evening and Richard Harris, a bird watcher, got out his binoculars to view the avian life.

The Iowa countryside

Another memorable moment this RAGBRAI was hearing my friend Scott Horsley tell how important the ride is to him. In fact it was his favorite week of the year. I was wondering whether I would bother to go again next year. I think I will.

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