Posted August 10, 2017 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I don’t think I’d ever been to Las Vegas, even to change planes at the airport. The flights for Southwest Airlines that day were full and on the second leg of my journey, from Las Vegas to Omaha, I was the very last person to board. With no assigned seats that meant I would be searching for a middle seat.

I got all the way to the back of the plane, a fight attendant leading the way, when she spotted a seat and revealed it to me like a game show hostess presenting the winner’s living room set. I saw that the seat was between an elderly woman at the window an a man on the aisle who looked like he was 400 pounds. He was the size of two guys and should have two seats. If the stewardess hadn’t showed that seat to me so dramatically I may have just turned back around.

But I wedged in, thinking I’d have this guy leaning on me for three hours when the other flight attendant announced, to no one in particular, that a middle seat had opened up about three rows ahead. She caught my eye with a serious look and quietly asked if I’d like to move there. I did move saying only ‘scuse me to the overweight man.

Down below the Nevada desert slowly turned green as we finally hovered over eastern Nebraska. The plane was pointed at the Omaha airport. There was a river below. The Platte? The Missouri?

That night I took a taxi to downtown Omaha from my motel to a place that was like the Gaslamp District in San Diego, only a little smaller. It was full of restaurants and nightclubs. At a restaurant my waitress told me her family had come to visit her – at work – and she hadn’t seen them in two years. I later asked her about them because I thought she wanted me to. She told me her big sister had died in her early 30s, and her daughter was still with her dad, and they had come along to visit Omaha.

I told her as she collected my payment that it wasn’t fair when people die so young. A tear formed in her eye as she walked away and out of my site. I wanted to tell her I was sorry I said that and give her a hug. But I only walked out of the restaurant.

The heat outside was oppressive and my AC in the motel was loud. But I slept and the next morning got ready for RAGBRAI, the ride across Iowa. I thought I’d see Omaha again one day. I may never see Vegas but that’s okay.



Posted August 3, 2017 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

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.



Dude from the Past

Posted June 25, 2017 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I ran into Jonathan last week. He was standing in front of the building where my chiropractor does his business. I didn’t remember his name of course, and at first I didn’t recognize him.

He was talking on a cell phone next to a workman painting a wall and as I approached he pointed at me as he stared down the length of his arm, like he was pointing a gun. I thought he was crazy or obnoxious. But then his face came into the focus of my memory. I used to train with him in karate.

He’s a little older than me (at least I think he is) and he was a lower belt at the time, and the time was at least 12 years ago. He had gained some weight and gotten older, but still had the aggressive wise-guy personality. He was there because he managed the building.

So what was new?

We talked about kids. He has a daughter and a son in their 20’s. The son is going to law school in Vermont where his dad said he’d become a communist. I remembered that Jonathan was a Republican. I told him about Nicholas and Sophie.

Actually, before we talked about kids we talked about our old karate sensei, who Jonathan knew a lot better than me because they were neighbors when they both lived in Clairemont. Sounds like this guy suffered from some bad fortune and bad judgement. He screw around on his wife, who left him. He also lost his new house in… was it Santa Luz? Jonathan wasn’t sure.

After my chiropractic visit he and I talked some more and I said goodbye. I quit karate when I ran out of time. It was a pain in the ass, getting to and from training, and though I respected our sensei I never much liked him.

Why then does it mean so much to me, a dozen years after I stopped doing it? Why are the people I met and the memories I have still so meaningful? Maybe it’s the beauty of ordinary life and the life you reach out for, and we don’t see it until it’s gone.



A Lesson I Suddenly Remember

Posted May 29, 2017 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

It must have been 25 years ago. I was in Minneapolis being a reporter and covering an appearance by Justice Harry Blackmun who grew up on Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul. He gave a speech, then took questions.

Justice Harry Blackmun

It was one of those times (isn’t it always one of those times) when there was a vacancy or soon-to-be vacancy on the Supreme Court. Someone asked him what a new member of the Supreme Court needs to have.

We probably all expected him to give us a little lecture. That’s why we came, right? He would say, “Well, a nominee for the Supreme Court must have a respect for precedent.” Or he’d say, “The nominee must have the judicial sense to balance a need for this with the need for that.”

But he gave us a one-word answer. Integrity.

That’s what a justice has to have. I think about that in the time of Trump because I realize that’s also what a President needs. We never talk about it but when we get someone who doesn’t have it, that sucks.


The Death of a Department Store

Posted March 19, 2017 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

Not long ago I found myself in Macy’s in Mission Valley just before the place would be shut down. They were having a going-out-of-business sale. Most of the display cases were empty and everything was 70 percent off, though there wasn’t much left you were likely to want. On the third floor there were odd supplies that were being kept in temporary storage, including a room full of nude manikins.

It’s sad to see a store go out of business. And it’s sad to look at a manikin that’s not in it’s natural state. It looks like a dead thing. And you’re reminded of the dreams they were supposed to suggest… dreams of fashion, sex and leisure. And none of them will come true as the manikin is frozen in an eternal pose.


Posted February 25, 2017 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

A Wednesday night in February and they’re playing music outside. But it’s San Diego and I’m wearing my Brooks Brothers overcoat watching the music at Panama 66. It’s the cool, historically correct name they gave to an open-sky courtyard adjacent to the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.

Kids who were students of Gilbert Castellanos played first. One of them was a little guy who looked like he was 12. He WAS 12. He wore a dark suit and tie as he played an upright bass that was bigger than him. A singer in a minidress did scat and a 16-year-old blond kid who was 6-foot-4 played a drum solo that was so musical it knocked me out.

Gilbert Castellanos and his band at Panama 66.

Gilbert Castellanos and his band at Panama 66.

The adults took the stage later as Gilbert blew solos on the trumpet like Freddy Hubbard. A bar was serving beer and wine. It was a real jazz club full of elegant women and everybody was there.

They knew I was a journalist and I got business cards from people who ran a TED lecture series, the International Academy of Jazz and Martinis Above Fourth, a club. A programmer for the San Diego Symphony told me why a concert hall was the perfect place to hear jazz.

When I was a kid I thought jazz musicians were like gods for what they could do with their instruments.  I still think they define what it is to be hip. Because hip is not something merely fashionable. It’s the nexus of classy and crazy… of virtuosity and spontaneity. It’s knowing that you are hearing true art but it’s nothing strange and exotic it’s just a natural expression of the love of art. And you can dance to it.

I walked away through the halls of the Balboa Park Prado as the music was still playing and I was feeling young. I will always be a frustrated artist and it was good to be reminded of that. Back to Panama 66. The Panama part refers to the Panama-California Exposition that gave birth to Balboa Park. But where do they get 66?


A Watched Gauge Never Fills

Posted February 10, 2017 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized


Living in a coastal desert has made me obsess about rainfall. I started using a rain gauge more than ten years ago, knowing the average rainfall for a San Diego winter. I celebrated every quarter inch the thing got. But five years of drought in Southern California has made me realize I cannot make it rain, and a watched rain gauge never fills.

I leave rainfall to God. Whatever He provides will have to do. Maybe if I’m indifferent that will make what I desire actually come true. I will look at a rain gauge like the one I photographed a year ago and I’ll just say whatever. Because after that great downpour the skies turned blue and we were left again in a drought… fifth year in a row.

I’ll wish for sunny weather that doesn’t inconvenience anyone who wants to ride a bike or play a game of tennis. The outdoors will be as dry as the indoors and that will be great. Because I don’t want it to rain. Tell me whether the drought is done at the end of the rainy season and I’ll say whatever.