Joining the Two-wheeled Migration across Iowa
During the final week of July, the Des Moines Register organizes Ragbrai (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), a trip that attracts thousands of riders to the country roads of Iowa as they take seven days to get from the Missouri River to the banks of the Mississippi. Like a peaceful, spandex-clad army, they eat their way through the heart of the breadbasket, and in doing so, they savor the products that farmers produce, and they experience the remaining vestiges of small-town life.
In 1981, I rode with the ninth annual Ragbrai event, and I’ve joined in several times since then. No need to point out the changes in me over the years: body parts that protest more, increased awareness that Iowa is not flat, and a decreased appreciation for the ambience of portable toilets. Because this year’s ride comes thirty years after my first, it’s more interesting to look at the changes and similarities that have occurred in the agricultural world we bike through.
Ten Observations from the Changing Fields of Dreams
1. Fewer animals graze in pastures or stand in feedlots. Most are in confinement buildings. However, hog farms still send out that sweet smell of bacon on the hoof if the wind is in the right direction.
2. The fields are still lush in a year when rain has been plentiful. The pollinated corn is uniform and planted in every available spot, and soybean fields are amazingly well-behaved: weeds seem to be lying low for now. Genetically modified crops rule the landscape.
3. Disappearing farms. Biking a mile of country road used to mean passing two or three farms. A thousand acres is no longer a big operation. The fields are beautiful and productive, but the rolling plains seem a bit lonelier.
4. Rural towns may be shrinking, but small-town hospitality is alive and well. Buy food from the kids at an ice cream stall; get your picture taken in front of the Prohibition Era jail; listen to the local talent sing country rock songs or watch them clog dance; strike up a conversation with a farmer at the town’s beer garden.
5. Food is still the focus. There’s just more of it. We still have pork chops, beef burgers, chicken sandwiches, and pie (a religion for many bikers). Smoothies and breakfast burritos have moved into prominence on the menu, and even some tofu, pasta, and salad items are edging in.
6. Bike technology has boomed in the 21st century, but a disgruntled proctologist must still be designing the bike seats. Unlike the casual wear of the past, most riders wear padded spandex shorts and Tour de France looking jerseys. By the end of a hot day full of hills, most of us need an extreme makeover no matter what we were wearing or riding.
7. The beat of the road has changed—but only to a point. Katy Perry and some hip-hop might boom out of boxes strapped on bikes, but Lynard Skynard and Parrot-head Buffet top the charts overall. With the average participant age in the forties or above, I guess enough riders are still looking for that lost shaker of salt.
8. Farm equipment has gone science-fiction style. You can see the classic putt-putt tractors on display in some of the towns, but the newest harvesters and mega-tractors look more like transformers that could double as space stations. The costs probably resemble that too.
9. Climate change or not, Iowa’s weather is controlled by a supernatural being with a wry sense of humor. This year, tropical heat and humidity. Thirty years ago, the coldest summer day on record with a slanting rain. Usually, it’s summer beautiful, but you can count on a headwind no matter which direction you turn.
10. The people in the pack and along the way make the trip. More groups now (Team Donut, Team Road Kill, Team Wasabi from Tokyo, and 130 fit-looking riders from the Air Force), but mixing friendly riders from around the world with the good folk of Iowa still seems to produce a week of goodwill for all concerned. It’s ag-world at its best. by Dan Gogerty, CAST Communications Ed.
Note: Many blogs, photo links, and news stories document the ride. These two are good for starters: Nathan Hurst gives some basic facts (248,000,000 calories consumed on the trip!) in this link. For an inspiring look at some riders who overcome challenges, check out the story and video from Erin Kiernan.