Monthly Archives: January 2014

2014
01/26

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A Breeze through the Keys

by Bill Scheller

Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas

Photos by the author

 

After the first twenty yards we gave up paddling, and yanked ourselves along by grabbing at the mangroves.  More than once I missed a sharp turn, and snagged the kayak’s prow among the leggy roots.    We were in a tunnel walled with mangroves, a shadowy channel threading through an opaque saltwater forest.

 

Here on the fringes of No-Name Key, it is anyone’s guess where the water ends and the land begins.  But if you are nosing a kayak through the mangroves with a naturalist like Bill Keogh, the challenge of comprehension is more vertical than horizontal: it’s like playing checkers on one of those three-dimensional boards, trying to pay attention to each level at the same time.  Bill would point down into the shallows to show me Cassiopeia jellyfish, indolent even by jellyfish standards, lying upside down on the bottom while life and lunch drifted by.  Then we would watch the shimmer of quick little  silversides, fish nearly as transparent as the water around them, while a finger-sized mangrove snapper darted among the gnarled prop roots of the trees.  “They’ll grow to three feet out on the reef,” Bill told me, “but the mangroves are their nursery.”

 

At the next level of the checkerboard, up around our gunwales, were the mangrove tree crabs, keystone-shaped creatures that eat algae off the roots.  Slyly camouflaged, they looked like half-dollar-sized bumps on the wet bark.

 

Uppermost — no, at every level — were the birds.  An immature Great White Heron stalked a shallow spot; egrets, their dark legs trailing, flapped overhead.  “The dark legs are the giveaway for egrets,” Bill told me.  “Herons have yellow legs.”

Bill Keogh earns part of his living as an environmental photographer.  The rest of the time he is out here among the mangroves, guiding clients and knowing his herons from his egrets.  As the Keys go, he represents the world away from Route 1.

 

 

President Truman's Little White House, Key West

President Truman’s Little White House, Key West

Getting off Route 1 — the Overseas Highway — is the ticket, if you want to know the Florida Keys.  Strung together like white coral beads first by the railroad, then by the highway, they are a skein of islands, and of communities, which a traveler can negotiate only by passing through each place in sequence via that 127-mile road and the 42 bridges that hold it together.  You cannot get to Marathon without visiting Key Largo; you can reach Key West only by way of Big Pine Key.  A man I met in Islamorada told me that since he moved to the Keys more than 20 years ago, he had lost most of his driving skills:  “All you do is go in a straight line, and make right and left turns.”

 

The beauty of this slender arc of islands lies largely in which rights and lefts you make — and, above all, in remembering to make them.  Barrel straight down the Overseas Highway, hell bent for Key West, and you’ll find plenty of places to eat, to spend the night, to shop.  But you will miss the shadowy groves of ironwood, gumbo limbo, poisonwood, soapberry, and wild tamarind in the hardwood hammock at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.   You will easily overshoot the Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, where pelicans, cormorants, owls, hawks, rare white-crowned pigeons, and other injured birds find a home — and where healthy herons and egrets cruise in to hang around the walkways and mooch food.

 

Skip those rights and lefts, and you won’t meet Sebastian, all nine feet and 400 pounds of him.  Sebastian is an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.  Our paths crossed one morning at the Hawk’s Cay resort, on Duck Key near Marathon, where Sebastian is on the staff of The Dolphin Connection.  After a quick but informative orientation — I learned, among other things, that dolphins have cone-shaped teeth while porpoises’ teeth are rectangular, and that dolphins’ echolocation signals are sent through their blowholes and received through their hollow, oil-filled jaws — I got into the water with Sebastian and his comrades. When I had my arms around Calvin, seven years old and somewhat smaller than Sebastian, and could feel his heart beat beneath his slick taut leathery hide.

 

 

Way off Route 1 — right off terra firma , in fact, and out in the Straits of Florida — I spent a day seeking a less cordial relationship with creatures of the deep.  I set out on the Catch-22 , Captain Richard Stanczyk, in pursuit of sailfish.

 

“The Keys are home to more International Game Fishing Association records than any other area in the world,” the Captain told me as we left our dock at Islamorada.  Stanczyk, with a clipped mustache and silver hair impervious to the ocean breeze, has the look of a cruise captain but is a seasoned sportfishing skipper.  “Everything now is catch-and-release, of course,” he continued.  “I doubt if anyone has killed a sailfish here in five years.”  I entirely approved, since there are only so many sailfish in the world and, besides, my wife favors a fishless motif for the space above our mantel.

 

I soon learned that before you troll for sailfish, you have to catch your bait.  Our mate, Sam Milazzo, deftly and repeatedly cast a big net off the stern to haul in ballyhoo, six-inch fish with a long, snoutish underbite, that would serve as live bait at the end of our lines.

 

Sam Milazzo casts his net for baitfish off Islamorada

Sam Milazzo casts his net for baitfish off Islamorada

It didn’t turn out to be my day for sailfish.  But even though those sleek, 60-pound six-footers eluded me, I did learn that a bad day’s fishing in the Keys stacks up well against a good day anywhere else.  Fishing with rod and reel for other bait, I came up with a grunt, a queen triggerfish, and a grouper; then, trolling a ballyhoo in mid-afternoon, I stumbled into a fight with a barracuda.  It took nearly twenty minutes, but I got the fish aboard — more than three feet of pure muscle, with a mouthful of daggers.  After a quick photo — no hugs or heartbeats –the barracuda went back into the drink, wiser, crankier, and ready to give the next guy at least a half-hour.

 

 

The part of Route 1 that hops from Marathon to Big Pine Key is called the “Seven Mile Bridge”, although it does touch down on several small keys along the way.  It is actually two bridges — the 20-year-old span that carries today’s traffic, and the original bridge built at the beginning of the last century for pioneer Florida promoter Henry Flagler’s remarkable Over-Sea Railway.  Flagler defied all odds to create the first fixed link between the mainland and Key West, and the trains ran until the great 1937 hurricane ruined the roadbed and made an automobile route, laid across the original 500-plus concrete piers and spandrels, a more practical alternative.

 

I stopped at little Pigeon Key, near the beginning of the Seven Mile Bridge, to visit a museum dedicated to the railway and its builders, men who bunked and boarded on this tiny outcrop while pulling down fifteen cents an hour for ten-hour days spent pouring concrete and laying track in the subtropic sun.  It was one of them who remarked that “building this railroad has become a regular marathon,” and thus named the nearest town.

 

“Flagler was a teetotaler, and he didn’t want his workers exposed to temptation,” a guide told museum visitors.  “He ordered his foremen to fire on the boats that anchored off Pigeon Key offering liquor and women, so the boats had to moor beyond rifle range.  The men would swim out, first to the booze boat and then to the women, and swim back, in shark-infested water.  When the sharks got a man, one of his fellow workers still sleeping in a tent might move up on the waiting list for a spot in a bunkhouse.”

 

I arrived in Key West a half-hour before sunset.  Key West all but copyrights its sunsets.  Every evening, as the clouds begin to turn that special shade of apricot, the throngs gather at Mallory Square on the waterfront.  Mallory Square is where the cruise ships tie up, and where the purveyors of petrified sharks’ teeth and hellaciously good conch fritters set up shop.  It’s also where, when sunset approaches, jugglers, fire-eaters, and less easily categorizable street performers claim their patch of pavement My favorite was a young woman all in white, and in white makeup, who stood still as an alabaster statue to airy New-Age music.  Whenever someone dropped her a dollar, she rang a triangle with a stately slow-motion flourish, as if calling elves to dinner.

 

 

The author with barracuda, caught and released

The author with barracuda, caught and released

And then the sun hisses into the water somewhere out beyond the Marquesas Keys.  Everyone claps, and then drifts back onto the downtown streets.  Duval Street, mostly: along with sunset at Mallory Square and the beached buoy at the end of Whitehead Street that marks the continental United States’ southernmost point, Duval Street has an iconic status in Key West.   It’s where the bars are — not all of them, but enough for a slow promenade down this bright thoroughfare to be known as the “Duval crawl.”

 

On the way back to my B&B from Mallory Square, I realized that I hadn’t seen a street sign in a while.  When I pointed out what I thought was a municipal deficiency to a local whom I asked for directions, he just smiled and said, “Hey, Keys disease.”  A local affliction, and it comes in many forms.  The guy I saw a block further down had another version; he was riding a bike with a cockatoo perched on the handlebars, squawking “pretty bird” at passersby.  The bird, not the guy.

 

 

There was once a famous part-time local resident, who loved this town even though he was the last person anyone would ever have diagnosed with  Keys disease.  “I’ve a notion,” he once remarked, “to move the capital to Key West and just stay.”

 

Harry Truman used to duck out of Washington whenever he could and settle in, loud Hawaiian shirts and all, at the former commandant’s quarters at the Key West naval station.  Truman first showed up in Key West in November of 1946, and came back ten times.  The president brought plenty of work with him, but there was always time for fun.  One of the highlights of a tour of what is now preserved as the Harry S. Truman Little White House is a big poker table on the downstairs veranda, where Truman would stay up late with naval officers and civilian aides, playing hand after hand in a mellow matrix of bourbon, conversation, and cigar smoke.

 

 

But it isn’t Harry Truman’s bespectacled visage that stares down at drinkers in Duval Street’s biggest saloon; and nobody runs a Harry Truman lookalike contest.  The outsider who has captured the Key West imagination more than anyone else arrived nearly twenty years before Truman, and probably could have drunk him under his poker table.  He was Ernest Hemingway, and he came here in the spring of 1928 to fish and to write.

 

Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, bought their Key West house in 1931.  Built 80 years earlier by a prosperous wrecker, it was one of the finest in town, with thick stone walls and the island’s only  basement — perfect for the writer’s wine cellar.  It was in a studio out back that Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not, Green Hills of Africa, and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.   Portable manual typewriter and all, the studio looks as if time might have stopped somewhere between a good morning’s writing and a good afternoon’s fishing circa 1932.  It’s actually a better Hemingway memorial than the house itself, which seems more Pauline’s.  The rest of the property, lovely tropical gardens surrounding the first swimming pool built in Key West, attests to Hemingway’s love of cats: there are 60-odd kitties in residence, all of them supposedly descendants of the writer’s own polydactyl (six toes on each front paw) felines.  They go through 80 pounds of dry food a week, and get regular visits from a veterinarian.  I asked my tour guide if the cats all stayed on the property.

 

“If you were a cat,” he answered, “would you leave here?”

 

 

For all its air of “that’s all there is, there ain’t no more,” Key West isn’t the last of the Florida Keys.  To reach the westernmost of the islands, you have to leave even the Overseas Highway behind, and travel by boat or seaplane to the Dry Tortugas, nearly 70 miles beyond the last bar on Duval Street.

 

The author, up close and personal with Calvin the dolphin

The author, up close and personal with Calvin the dolphin

Romantic as it sounds today, the name is pure practicality, shorthand useful for 16th-century mariners wondering where on the map they might find provisions: “dry” meant there was no fresh water; “tortugas”, Spanish for turtles, meant there was fresh meat.  There wasn’t much else, until 1847.   That was when the United States government started laying bricks on the Tortugas’ Garden Key to create the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere.

Fort Jefferson seems like the unlikeliest and most desolate of all American coastal defenses.  But that’s not really what the fort was all about.  The massive structure, which is nowhere near the coast, was built primarily to provide a safe haven for American vessels pausing near the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico for repairs or provisioning.  It was a big, brick umbrella, bristling with guns — though never nearly as many as the 400 originally envisioned.

 

Fort Jefferson, in fact, was never completed at all.  It was still unfinished when the Civil War began in 1861.  The fort became a military prison, housing captive Confederates.  Immediately after the war, its most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, and who was himself implicated in the Lincoln assassination plot.  Mudd, who was later released because of his heroic medical efforts during a yellow fever outbreak at the fort, was confined to a cell deep within its walls.  As I stood in this dankest, dreariest of places, though, I had to wonder if life was much better for the woolen-uniformed Yankees stationed here.

 

Abandoned by the Army in 1874, Fort Jefferson later became a coaling station for the Navy.  This was the last stop of the battleship Maine  before her fateful entry into Havana harbor in 1898.  Then came a far longer stretch of dereliction, until the vast old pile and its surrounding reef became a National Park in 1992.

 

At Fort Jefferson, the grim business of homeland defense has long departed from the world of bricks and mortar, leaving the waters beneath these walls to corals and reef fishes and people who bob around looking at them.  With bridges and boats, kayaks and mangroves and dolphins behind me, I put on my flippers and waded off the edge of North America.

 

 

 

2014
01/26

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Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail – Hut-To-Hut Trekking: A Natural Traveler Slideshow

Photos and introduction by Steve Lagreca

The Laugavegur is a relatively short, but strenuous, 50 miles (78 km). It runs from the interior highlands south to Route #1, a.k.a. Ring Road (Laugavegur Trail Map). Colorful mountains, spellbinding vistas, perky summer flowers, steam vents so near you can feel their warmth, a photogenic alpine lake, boiling mud pots and snowy (even in July) trails – all on the first day! The next few days add river crossings, fields of black lava rocks, alien-looking green and black misty mountains, an enchanting forest of little trees, lunch overlooking a waterfall, and a good possibility to catch the alpenglow from an artic sunset. At trail’s-end awaits the grand finale; thundering Skogafoss falls (seen in Thor: The Dark World). Tip: Allow time for the side hikes.

 

Huts provide an alternative to carrying tents and cooking gear. They’re cozy and warm, with a shared kitchenette and bunk beds. Tip: Make your reservations early; they fill up months in advance.

 

Don’t take this trail for granted. It’s well-marked, but snow can make the markers difficult to spot. They aren’t kidding when they tell you conditions change rapidly – on the Morinsheidi heath (plateau) the temperature dropped from T-shirts and sunshine to freezing with high winds and sleet, all in about an hour. Not for the faint of heart is the famous “Cat’s Back” at Fimmvorduhals Pass; an arched, narrow section with sheer drop offs on either side.  Further on there’s a few short sections requiring some hand-over-hand climbing. The last obstacle is a short exposed section that will test your nerves, with chains to grasp for reassurance.  Worth it? Indeed!

 

If you go:

Iceland '13 - Skogafoss Iceland '13 - Ken Zink, Katelyn Zink, Fimmvorduhals Trek Iceland '13 - Katelyn Zink, Ken Zink, Fimmvorduhals Trek Iceland '13 - Steve, Ken Zink, Cat's Back, Fimmvorduhals Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - View from Thorsmork, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Waterfall, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Steve, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Ken Zink, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Hrafntinnusker Hut, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Lake Alftavatn, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Alpine Lake, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Ken Zink, Katelyn Zink, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Steam, Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek Iceland '13 - Laugavegurinn Trek

2014
01/26

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RAGBRAI: Organize It, and They Will Come

Finding a bit of home on Iowa’s weeklong cycling extravaganza

West Point, home of the annual Sweet Corn Festival, built a mountain of bikes for riders to pose on

West Point, home of the annual Sweet Corn Festival, built a mountain of bikes for riders to pose on

 

By John H. Ostdick

Photos by the author and Jim Ostdick, Michelle Medley, and Don Knight

 

A thick, damp fog hangs almost as insanely close as the hundreds of bicyclists laboring on all sides of me on this main street leading out of Perry, Iowa. I struggle to shake the feeling that a horde of groggy strangers are trying to climb into my seat with me, or worse, knock me right off of it.

 

All kinds of images flash through my brain, a bit scattered pre its morning coffee fix. I find myself talking to my long-dead father Leo, a native Iowan whom I’m sure would be perplexed by the crowd gathered here. He doesn’t answer, or come walking out the cornfields to steady my Trek, but the thought process is calming. (As I had hoped, I do feel his presence often during my week in Iowa.)

 

As this bulging snake of riders turns left to climb out of Perry, large portions of them disappear in the hanging grayness only to pop out in the sunshine breaking through the fog further up the hill. All I can take in from my seat are the fog trying to swallow me, and an illuminated sea of bobbing helmets up above me.

 

The annual RAGBRAI ride across this state has overnight quadrupled the population of this year’s smallest host city. This morning’s buzz is that a possible-record influx of “day” riders joining us weeklong participants for a 52-mile spin into the state capital of Des Moines has swelled our ranks to 25,000 or more cyclists. It feels that and more.

Throughout the week, people such as Marilyn from Monroe set up rider resting spots in their yards

Throughout the week, people such as Marilyn from Monroe set up rider resting spots in their yards

 

The moment is equal parts unnerving and wonderful, claustrophobic and freeing — and totally RAGBRAI, which got its start as a writing lark by two Des Moines Register staffers in 1973 (hence the alphabet soup name, Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa).

 

At 56, I am here as part of a couple of long-ago planted seeds. During my previous life as a magazine editor, one of my writers wrote a story on this seven-day, 400-miles-and-change adventure (a different route is chosen each year from towns bidding to be on the route, which starts at a city on the western border and ends at a eastern border site; the average distance is 468). I loved the story and his personal accounts of the race, and later mentioned to my brother Jim that we should ride RAGBRAI one day. Fast forward 20 years, and I get this winter email from Jim explaining he will be riding from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, in the summer and that he thinks we should do RAGBRAI together in the middle of his quest as a homage to our Ottumwa-born and raised father on the 50th anniversary of his death. (It later appears as if our participation this year is fated: The 2013 route passes within a few miles of the house Leo grew up in.)

 

So launches the “Finding Leo” adventure of 2013. As soon as my Dallas riding buddy Don hears of the plan, he goes all in as well, and we start making training plans (for the interested, a very helpful training regimen is available at http://ragbrai.com/category/ragbrai-training-blog/ ).

 

 

Finding Our Way

There are worse places to change a flat than this spot outside of Fairfield

There are worse places to change a flat than this spot outside of Fairfield

 

In case there is any doubt, let me be clear: I have no love for riding in groups. Before we started training, Don and I were the most casual of cyclists, with our average ride being about 14 miles, he on a mountain bike and I on a hybrid.

 

And like most folks, we are hardly cut for Spandex. In fact, Don’s wife Kathryn is out walking their dog one morning when she sees the silhouette of three riders riding toward her. As she recounts later, she thinks to herself, “Good for those three thick boys for getting some exercise.” And, of course, those guys turn out to be Don, Stan, another cycling buddy, and myself.

 

We adopt the “Thick Boys” as our training moniker (although our official RAGBRAI team name is “Gutting It Out”). Some interesting — and occasionally painful —training rides and a transformation to road bikes later (a 100k sponsored ride in the June Dallas heat convinces me to switch), we find ourselves meeting up with Jim mid-cross-country ride at my sweet cousin Carole’s house in Omaha, Nebraska, just across the state line from the 2013 RAGBRAI start in Council Bluffs. Somewhere amid the craziness, my wife Michelle signs on to drive a support vehicle for us.

 

Runnels rolled in with a Christmas in July theme, welcoming riders with decorated streets including a faux snow machine

Runnels rolled in with a Christmas in July theme, welcoming riders with decorated streets including a faux snow machine

RAGBRAI, which announces its route and host cities each January, holds the claim as the oldest, largest, and longest bicycle-touring event in the world — a far cry from its origins, a six-day ride adventure comprised of two Des Moines Register columnists and some hangers-on. Spandex, jerseys, gloves, and helmets were nowhere to be seen back then. It can be very hot (the 2012 version was a scorcher), and Iowa has more hills than an outsider might imagine. We are very fortunate overall in choosing this as our first RAGBRAI: While we are a little battered by the heat and humidity the first two days, a furious overnight storm front that pelts our tents with hail brings with it cooler air that will last the week. And the official 408 miles (we ride a little more than that) is among the shortest courses in its history.

 

Tradition calls for participants to dip their back tire in the Missouri River before they begin, and kiss the Mississippi River with their front tire when they finish. The enormously popular ride had to cap its weeklong ridership ranks at 8,500 (although I have yet to meet anyone who says he or she missed the cut), determined by a computer-run lottery. Participants can choose to use equipment buses to ferry their camping gear from town to town, pay to have independent companies do that and set up their tents daily, or enlist their own support driver to tote the load and vie for camping space each day (host cities have limited housing options on a pre-reserved basis as well). Daily numbers balloon with those on day-ride passes, and the thousands of unregistered Iowans who just decide to ride along for a while.

 

 

Navigating Miles of Riders

Roger, our host in Perry, sees us off in the morning

Roger, our host in Perry, sees us off in the morning

 

And that is what happens on the ride into Des Moines. This is the first time in 16 years that RAGBRAI is stopping at the Des Moines state fairgrounds overnight. Rider numbers swell as the day gets longer. The day after the ride, the Iowa State Patrol reports counting 23,845 cyclists leaving the pass-through town of Minburn, but troopers doing the counting with hand-held clickers allow that hundreds more riders lingered in Minburn and were never tabulated. And another 2,000 or so reportedly join at the mid-town stop in Dallas Center. RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz is quoted later in the week as saying that the throng tops the 32,000 counted in 2010 in Altoona, and that he is confident upward of 35,000 bicyclists streamed through central Iowa on this day.

 

We are a few miles out of Perry before the rider pack stretches out and things become less sardinish. Compared to the previous day’s sometime arduous 86-mile journey, the 52 miles into Des Moines unwinds almost leisurely, gliding through a series of rolling hills and food stops set up specifically for RAGBRAI. For many of these small towns, a RAGBRAI pass-through, mid-town, or meeting town designation is the biggest event of the year.

 

Riders swarm vendors in Runnels to rehydrate and refuel

Riders swarm vendors in Runnels to rehydrate and refuel

The RAGBRAI challenge cannot be confused with climbing Everest or riding in the Tour De France, but seven days in the saddle in weather that can be in the 100s or wet and rainy do provide a test. Throughout its history, promoters and riders have struggled to find the perfect descriptor for RAGBRAI. “A Rolling Mardi Gras” is one phrase often used. But as the thousands of riders grind to a stop at small town squares and swamp the vendors, it provides an atmosphere unto itself.

 

Towns along the way offer options to hydrate, fuel up, or even tank up; some riders swarm designated beer garden areas, swilling beer (unfortunately, Anheuser-Busch seems to have an iron grip on supplies) and dancing in the streets.

 

We try to spend a little money in each of the towns, especially at local fundraising booths, but eschew partaking in much of the other foolishness, even bypassing the stops now and then when possible. While we never taste the “pork chop on a stick”  (the lines are too long) or any hamballs (which none of us want to get near), in Monroe we do chow down on breaded, deep-fried tenderloin patty sandwiches the size of our heads (the meat extends beyond the bun a couple of inches on all sides).  Each host town has organizations doing some sort of dinner fundraisers for local organizations, often featuring pasta dishes.

 

Riders swarm for a rest-and-refresh break on the town square in tiny Minburn

Riders swarm for a rest-and-refresh break on the town square in tiny Minburn

During a lunch break in Guthrie Center during our 86-mile day, Michelle supplies us with Subway sandwiches, which are devoured in folding chairs on a side-street sidewalk beneath an ample shade tree. Betty, whose yard we have plopped in, comes out for a visit. The gracefully aging Betty, a lifelong farmer, has moved into her deceased mother’s house in town. She voraciously seeks tales of our RAGBRAI experiences, coming away somewhat disappointed since we have only two days experience at this point. We have a pleasant visit nevertheless. Just as we are about to get back on our bikes, Betty’s daughter and granddaughter, who have been volunteering in town, join us. They provide us fresh water for our water bottles, and we peddle away.

 

Other entertainment opportunities include dwarf wrestling matches outside the Longest Yard Bar in the midpoint city of Dallas Center (including the efforts of four-foot-five-inch Little Kato); team competitions with fire hoses that involving moving barrels along a suspended rope; a Christmas theme stop in Runnels, where machines pump out fake snow for picture ops; a roadside photo session with Sasquatch (alas, we somehow miss Shelby’s 76-foot ear of corn); the Dutch-themed and windmill-populated streets of Pella; and music and dancing of all ilk. Cruising through the State Fairgrounds in Des Moines early in the morning is a little surreal; we aren’t ready to stop and wander at any of the vendor booths (many of the 20,000 who partied late and camped in the Water Works Park near the Fairgrounds started much later the next day).

 

As we pass a large and — judging by the number of cycles strewn by the side of the road — popular water hole off to the left of the roadway, we hear an irritated male voice on a loudspeaker urging visitors there “to keep your clothes on while swimming.”

 

 

A Familiarity in Discovery

Riders set up campsites beneath a rainbow in Harlan

Riders set up campsites beneath a rainbow in Harlan

 

My father Leo was born to Herman and Ida, both native Ottumwans, in 1917. My connection to his family here faded after my father’s death in Texas at 46. I remember some early visits to my grandparents’ house, how we kids slept out on the screened-in back porch, how he kept a large garden and canned its harvests, how the smell of the thick rye bread they baked filled the house when we visited, and their stern but familiar demeanor. From time to time during this ride, I recognize my dad in some of the people we meet.  It is not riding through the homeland, exactly, but it seems somehow familiar.

 

Leo wasn’t around for most of my life discoveries, from learning to ride a two-wheeler to acing my first job interview. So throughout my life, I’ve tried to take advantage of any situations that make the connection with someone who was as much shadow as light in my young life. RAGBRAI is proving just such a touchstone.

 

After quickly learning the importance of calling, “Rider on,” “Slowing,” and “Rider off” to let the surrounding horde know our immediate attention, we fall into a daily pattern that best fits our needs.

Riders rest and compare notes in a park at the meeting town of Monroe

Riders rest and compare notes in a park at the meeting town of Monroe

 

During the week, we camp in a fairground, a yard, a state park, and a municipal park, spend one evening in a hotel (Des Moines), and another in the home of local residents. We generally break camp and load the car for Michelle before 8 a.m., ride within shouting distances of each other for about 10 miles before stopping for coffee and breakfast sandwiches; hydrate, hydrate, hydrate (in the beginning, Jim calls out “water” every 15 minutes or so until we get into the rhythm); moderate our pace; meet Michelle in the day’s mid-town to eat lunch in a patch of shade; ride another 10 to 15 miles more, take another break; and finally try to punch a hole in the glutted cell traffic to find out where Michelle has set up camp; set up the tents, rest and shower if we can find one; eat and crash.

 

I lose track of how many times we cross/parallel the Des Moines River. I have two flats in one day. Each host town has an evening party with bands but until we reach Fairfield on the last night of the ride and enjoy pizzas from a portable wood-burning oven, we never participate in the festivities.

Rider packs thin out along the cornfields between cities

Rider packs thin out along the cornfields between cities

 

Jim gives us each ride nicknames, a holdover from his trail hiking days perhaps. He calls me “Uno “and Don “Dos,“ and Michelle “Roadie.” He takes great delight in how Don flies down hills and uses the gathered momentum to help him crest the next. We both marvel at the euphoric expression that brightens Don’s face in the doing.

 

Finding bathrooms can prove daunting with all of this activity going on. The lines for “kybos,” what the Iowans call their portable toilets, are always imposing day and night, which is why you see thousands of riders “doing the RAGBRAI,” which involves a trip into the cornfields. Unoccupied bicycles waiting at the edge of a cornfield are recurring sites. I will never look at an ear of Iowa corn the same.

 

RAGBRAI attracts all kinds of people and machines, like this couple aboard a tandem recumbent bike

RAGBRAI attracts all kinds of people and machines, like this couple aboard a tandem recumbent bike

As we pass a black cow statue the size of a dump truck, some dairy folks are handing out ice cream and cartons of chocolate milk.

 

“Free ice cream,” a healthy young Iowa maiden calls out, offering samples from the side of the road.

 

“FREE ice cream?” a lanky cyclist repeats, incredulous.

 

“Yes, FREE ice cream.”

 

“Is this heaven?” the biker responds as he reaches out for an ice cream sample.

Michelle and her ukulele serenade the campsite in harlan

Michelle and her ukulele serenade the campsite in harlan

 

“No, Iowa,” an overtaking cyclist chimes in, as if she had ridden 300 miles just waiting for some one to say that.

 

“Oh, she SO got you,” one of the cyclist’s companions says.

 

These riders — and the cycles they navigate — come in all shapes and sizes. First-timers who ride with group are identifiable by the VIRGIN spelled out in marker on their legs. Every day I pass a skeletal woman who appears to be in her 70s or older. Her small saddlebag carries a notation on it — I may be old but I’m slow.  She’s a picture in the slow-and-steady mode, as is a must-be-pushing-450-pounds gentleman who strains up each hill on his recumbent bike.

 

Don, John, Jim, and mascot Flat Stanley are all smiles in Stanley after an 86-mile ride

Don, John, Jim, and mascot Flat Stanley are all smiles in Stanley after an 86-mile ride

Defrocked Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong rides the first few days with a team that zooms up the steepest hills Iowa has to offer at more than 35 miles per hour (as clocked by Ron, a performance rider who says he hung with them for a few miles one day). Signs in yards along the route beseech Lance to stop and visit, including one that says, “Lance Armstrong, today is my birthday. Please stop for me” (as we pass, we ask people in the yard, and yes, he did just that).

 

The most impressive able-bodied participants, however, might be 30-year-old Tim Roberts and 25-year-old Jason Pardie, who are tackling RAGBRAI on unicycles.  As I dig up a steep rise one day, I sidle up to Pardie and offer my amazement at his effort. I am compelled to ask him how he copes with the ups and downs on one wheel.

 

“I don’t dare let my attention stray beyond the several feet in front of me,” says Pardie, who has ridden in five RAGBRAIs (this is the second consecutive year he will ride the full route).  Although he acknowledges that he has had to walk at a couple of really steep places, he strives not to break his momentum as he climbs, and remains cautious and relaxed on his pedals on the way down. Even more amazing, he is tackling RAGBRAI on a borrowed unicycle: His unicycle fell off his vehicle’s roof and was hit by a truck on the way to the ride. (Under the it-had-to-happen eventually category, two runners — identified as Pete Kostelnick and Richard Kresser  — also complete the RAGBRAI course for the first time.)

As the week wanes, crashing spots in the shade, such as here in Monroe, become very popular

As the week wanes, crashing spots in the shade, such as here in Monroe, become very popular

 

Although RAGBRAI has somewhat outgrown its full costume era, there are still plenty of entertaining themes about — although you would think the prevalent teams wrapped in Hello, Kitty garb (including tutus and tights on a couple of the guys) would have played itself out by now. Team Flamingo sports pink feathers flaring out of its helmets. Team Quack, and their new in-duck-tees, announces its presence with a chorus of duck calls. Team Bumble Bee, dressed in yellow-and-black striped jerseys, like to emote a loud collective buzz as it passes. Bikers pulling small trailers with boom boxes blasting away are a novelty the first few days, then not so much — especially the guy who has Oklahoma on a loop. And, of course, slogan shirts and jerseys abound. I chuckle when one stoutish woman passes me, leaving me to consider the humorous contribution she makes with the marker-scrawled, “Does this shirt make my butt look fast?”

 

PICKING A GREAT FIRST RAGBRAI

 

Unlike the previous year’s drought-ravaged scenery, the 2013 course’s vistas are lush green (with picturesque rows of corn to our left and fields of low-growing soybeans on our right, or vice versa). As riders enter specified pass-through towns on the route, little Iowan squares become elbow-to-elbow stopdowns, with food vendors and local fundraisers selling everything from Gatorade and water to pies and fresh Iowa corn. Rows of bicycles lean on rope lines, sides of structures, anything that will provide support. The scene resembles a traveling Iowa fairground, with weeklong vendors pulling up stakes overnight and setting up amid local fundraising booths in the next town. Only we supply the bearded ladies and other carny types.

 

And everybody along the way is just so darn Iowa nice — from the side of the highway, where people set up lawn chairs in the shade for riders to take a break from the sun, to the towns, where locals provide spots on their lawns or in their homes for riders to overnight. Like Roger and Donna, a very nice couple in Perry, who let us pitch our tents in their yard and use a shower (do I hear an Amen, people?).  And Susan, in quirky Fairfield, who welcomes us into her home overnight, provides a tour of the transcendental meditation capital of the United States, and shares dinner on the square with us.

A vendor bakes pizza in a portable brick oven in Fairfield

A vendor bakes pizza in a portable brick oven in Fairfield

 

Our muscles and brain functions are mostly good-weary at the end of each day. Michelle performs flawlessly in the support car, making sure we have adequate fluids, finding great campsites, and playing the ukulele and singing to us as we recover at the end of the day. Before the week ends, she will make an emergency room trip in Knoxville, Iowa (Jim, food poisoning), and have to navigate a scary dirt road through a cornfield maze after she makes a bad turn, runs onto the riders’ route, and has to freelance her way out.

 

We are overwhelmed by the support and friendliness we encounter along the way, although on the last day, a 63-mile ride from Fairfield to Fort Madison, Don and I tire of the sing-song encouragement “it’s all downhill from here,” only to face another hill to climb (in truth, the last 20 miles or so are, indeed, almost all downhill).

 

After dipping our tires in the Mississippi, we have morphed into the “Thick Brothers” — although slender Jim throws our average off a bit. We load the bikes up and head back toward Omaha, where Jim will spend a week recovering from his food illness before resuming his cross-country trek (he ends up riding more than 6,000 miles by the time he ends up in Oceanside, California, in November, but that’s another story).

A riding buddy down-dips his front tire in the Mississippi River

A riding buddy down-dips his front tire in the Mississippi River

 

We stop on the narrow, hilly cobblestone street of old Ottumwa and revisit Leo’s birthplace. It is the first time I’ve seen it since I was a very young child. I carry a piece of Dad back with me. My mother had passed in the spring, and in going through her things I had found a medal with a blue-white-and-gold ribbon for the “32nd Annual Session of the Grand Council of Iowa” with my dad’s name and hometown, commemorating his participation in a youth leadership conference put on by the Des Moines Rotary in June 1931. During my training period, I had placed the medal in a baggie, and stuck it in a storage bag on my bike (it remains there months after leaving Iowa).

 

As I gaze upon his childhood home, I clutch the medal in my hand. I don’t know that I found Leo on this adventure, but I sure felt him with me as I peddled the 408 miles along with thousands of other free souls. That, for me, will always sum up the spirit of RAGBRAI.

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE RIDE

A rider pedals the Dutch-themed streets of Pella

A rider pedals the Dutch-themed streets of Pella

 

RAGBRAI’s success has spawned more than 200 multi-day rides in at least 32 states. The ride coordinators figure that more than 280,000 riders have pedaled more than 17,000 miles through more than 800 towns — including all of Iowa’s 999 counties and 80 percent of its incorporated towns — since the tour’s inception.

 

For more information, visit http://ragbrai.com

 

 

 

 

 

2014
01/26

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