My annual travels back to Iowa continued in July of 2022 as I joined the week-long RAGBRAI ride across Iowa. My fifth time.

Again we were blessed with unseasonably mild weather, even though our time on the road was bookended by dreadfully humid heat in the previous and following weeks. Again, the fellowship of my cycling teams, the NPR riders and Team Groucho, provided laughter and wit that made time fly by.

On our first night of RAGBRAI we slept in a veritable mansion, owned by a Sioux City factory owner who was gone on vacation but left us with his residence, a large collection of liquor (which we did not use) and a heated swimming pool (which we did).

The next night some of us slept in a huge country shed on a local farm that doubled as an antique store and a collection of curiosities, which included rusting farm tools, store signs and road signs and useful machine parts. As far as I could tell, it was all for sale. It was a scene straight out of the TV show American Pickers.

The farm family that hosted us was white and Laotian, the latter group having become Iowans as two and three generations have set down roots and their offspring were scattered to the nearby towns. They spoke in the same Midwestern accent as the German and Scandinavian descendants.

In Floyd County our host was an eccentric farmer/politician. He served for many years in the state legislature and also served on a tennis court that was one of a kind. His love of the game, and the Wimbledon tournament, was seen in the flawless grass court he maintained on his property. I borrowed a racket and hit the ball on that organic carpet with our host and with my RAGBRAI buddy Megan Danforth, who played pretty well although she played in bare feet and claimed to have not swung a racket in 20 years.

This was a new twist on my childhood experience of traveling from one place to the other in Iowa to take part in junior tennis tournaments. I learned to play tennis in Iowa and here I was, playing on some guy’s private grass court right next to a corn field!

RAGBRAI is a magnet for people from around the country and the culture of the event suggests a return to small town life and values. Nobody… I mean nobody locks their bike on RAGBRAI. Doing so would violate an article of faith.

But the reality of rural life was seen alongside the one we imagined. Iowa has changed since I lived there as a kid but it has not kept up, and this has become apparent to me over the years that I have been a visitor from the California coast. The small towns we rode through looked empty. Their people looked old and obesity was a common problem. Once a swing state, politically, Iowa has become a reliably Red state where the GOP controls all the powers of state government. It’s a state with lots of conservative white folks that Donald Trump flatters and who must resent the well-heeled smart asses who live in big cities.

Riding on RAGBRAI, I’ll admit, you can be like the blind man feeling the elephant and so maybe what you see can be misleading. So don’t let me tell you that Iowa is only one thing, since it is full of people and stories that contradict what I just described.

It’s funny when I hear myself say Iowa used to be a swing state or, as we’d say today, a Purple state. Didn’t all states use to be swing states? How else could a presidential candidate like Ronald Reagan win nearly every state on election day. We used to think more alike and agree on more things.

Sadly we’re now a country of people going our separate ways, and after five visits I think I know better which way my former home state is headed.


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