Monday, July 30, 2012

The RAGBRAI Story: 25th Anniversary Edition

It’s been twenty-five years, so maybe the story can finally be told.

Last Thursday, my city hosted RAGBRAI, a yearly bike event where people gather and ride their bikes across the state of Iowa, from the Missouri river to the Mississippi. Thousands of bikers, both novices and serious riders, gather each year around the same time when Iowa’s temperatures reach their peak for a non-competitive, weeklong ride.

A quarter-century ago-try saying that fast ten times…you’ll still never understand how old it sounds-I participated in RAGBRAI and lived to tell about it.

The lessons I learned from that ride are with me to this day, with memories that continue to be shared with others while some remain unspoken.

The places where I stayed are the foggiest. Was it Storm Lake, or was it just a bad thunderstorm during that first night? Hartford or New Hartford, which one? There isn’t an airport in Guttenberg, is there? So how did I fly back across the state after RAGBRAI was all over?

You have to understand that RAGBRAI would literally just take over these small towns when they’d stroll in, usually mid-to-late afternoon, depending on how hard you rode from the previous town that day.

Once you arrived at your destination, a quick clean up (more on that later) and then head over to the local watering hole to get ripped.

You’ll get defenders claiming that RAGBRAI is a family oriented environment, fueled on wholesome American spirit and Midwestern values. There is a section of the massive bike camp where this is true; it’s the same section of the camp where local bike clubs or corporate participants submit their requests to the RAGBRAI organizers, paying their entry fees and having a legitimate pass to get into the event.

Then there’s the rest of the riders, teams made up of old drinking buddies or groups of adults that view the week as a chance to get lit and relive their college days, blissfully right next to a bunch of college bros that also see the ride as a chance to unwind.

I would have been part of the latter camp, securing the RAGBRAI idea from a friend across state who encouraged me to come up to his place and tag along for the event. He provided me with some vague details on who we’d be riding with, and how we would participate even without proper tickets or documentation. Then there was the fact that I didn’t even own a bike at the time.

I worked at the municipal pool during the summer, securing the necessary time off as a “vacation” and using a friend’s mountain bike for “training.” The local bluffs around the Mississippi river where I grew up provided a brutal training area.

So I decided not to train.

By the time we made it to the starting town on the Iowa border to Nebraska, my friend and I had already consumed a fair amount of hallucinogens around the Iowa Great Lakes area on the days leading up to our launch.

I learned two very important things on that first day, a seventy-five mile distance from  point A to point B. The first was that even if you haven’t properly trained, a young, resilient body would adapt. You will eventually reach a point where you break through the soreness and fatigue, finally conquering the notion that your body won’t be able to survive the entire ride.

I don't think it's the same case for a 45 year old man, and I'm not willing to find out.

We're on the road to nowhere. Literally.
The second thing that I learned is that bicycle shorts are a critical accessory to any bicyclist with testicles, particularly ones faced with daily rides of anywhere from 70 to 100 miles. The pain in my balls was so intense that on the first stop of the second day, I bought a pair of Cannondale bicycling shorts with a chamois gooch cushion at a ridiculously high price just so I could get to the next town without having to pedal the entire way standing up. Those bicycle shorts remained in close proximity with my junk for the entire trip, and I still own them to this day.

One thing that didn’t make it all the way was my Smiths Meat Is Murder concert-T that had become so encrusted with pit stains after years of continuous wear that I made the tattered remains into wife-beater jersey that complimented my dirty-blonde locks that had finally grown past my shoulders.

Wherever we ended up for the first night, it was very dark. As a storm approached the camp area, I became totally focused on the number of people sporting earrings made out of small plastic see-through containers of that glow-in-the-dark liquid they use in bracelets.

Someone gave me one of these earrings, and in my altered state I convinced myself that I needed to pierce my ear and wear my new earring so that I could be illuminated too.

You’ll notice that I said “ear” as in one ear, not the pair. You see, back in the 80’s scientists discovered that straight males did not wear earrings in both ears. After months of research and testing, these scientists noted irrefutable evidence that males that pierced only their right ear were homosexual, while straight men pierced only their left ear. I convinced one of my travel companions that he should help me with the process. He had a single earring in his left ear, so I gathered that he was somewhat familiar with the ear piercing protocol and that he wasn’t gay.

With dirty fingernails that smelled of spilled Miller Lite, he grabbed the post end of my glow-in-the-dark earring and pressed it through my fleshy earlobe. There was hardly any blood, but the popping sound that I distinctly heard as the post finally made its way through the other side of my earlobe made a massive popping noise.

Everybody else swore they never heard a popping sound, but maybe they just didn’t take enough LSD to hear it.

If the idea that some of the time during RAGBRAI was spent under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs seems weird to you, it really shouldn’t. No, the truly bizarre thing is how we ran out of acid the night before we hit Fort Dodge, Iowa and were able to secure more of it in a parking lot of this central Iowa town of 25,000 people.

Some of the towns in the stops along the way go all out in welcoming you and making you feel that you’re more than just another revenue source. As I entered one small town stop, I immediately began to scope out the community, looking first for our group’s camper, but then trying to locate shower sources, meal specials, and other points of interest, like which parking lots have the greatest potential for scoring LSD.

For this particular town, they had opened up the showers to the middle school for bikers to clean up a bit. The hot water was used up hours before, but with the heat of the July sun still a recent memory, the cool water was not much of a complaint.

And a cold shower in the local middle school was nothing to some of the other cleaning areas I saw in other towns. Like the town that let bikers use the outside faucets in the stalls of a local fairgrounds that were normally used to clean livestock. I felt uncomfortable with the obvious comparison to our farm animal brethren, and the fear that the muddy grounds directly outside of  the stalls would instantly defeat any notion of actually getting clean.

I didn’t feel like a cold shower in the local Middle school that day.

I wanted a real, warm shower.

I convinced my friend and another rider, that all we needed to do was to walk down one of the oak-lined streets in this God-fearing Iowa town and look for lawn ornaments.

There’s a certain age-bracket for anyone who considers lawn ornaments, and I reasoned that the age bracket would skew older. The idea was that an older couple would be more receptive than younger residents to let in random strangers into their home to take a shower.

All of this seems completely insane now-I mean, who would actually agree to letting strangers into their houses? But a quarter-century ago, there were towns in Iowa that would let acid-soaked bicyclists into the most private of areas of their homes, allowing them to dampen their towels and snoop around their medicine cabinets.

I say this with all certainty because the first home we saw with lawn ornaments let us use their shower for some nice, hot relief.

It was an older woman who opened the door, looking a bit surprised at my request, but sheepishly allowing us in to partake her indoor plumbing.

If anything, she seemed a little worried that her overnight guests may have used up all of her hot water. I noticed a couple of cyclists had camped out in her backyard, apparently part of the community’s hosting program which paired up cyclists with spare backyards, bedrooms, whatever kind of accommodations they could donate for one night of RAGBRAI. She must have surmised that someone from the city sent my group to her door, pleading for a chance to clean up before invading her community’s taverns.

If that event was the most redeeming story of humankind, then allow me to continue with what happened next in that same community.

The owners/renters/caretakers of the camper we were tagging with, were starting to get a bit intolerant of my friend and me for constantly retreating to the top of the camper. The concern was that our weight would cause damage to the roof of the camper, thereby ruining it and spoiling the thing for future fun.

They didn’t have so much of an issue of it when it was just the two of us sleeping up there, but we had a tendency to invite any and every passerby to join us on the roof of the camper. Particularly girls. 

Occasionally, a few more people would find their way up the ladder to the roof, admiring our stoned perspective from above, safe from the myriad of personalities that walked passed our parked campsite.

If you’re wondering why we didn’t just get inside the camper, it’s because it was a sausage fest in there. If we were going to roughneck it, we would do so outside in the elements, fearless of any unpredictable weather pattern.

That’s when another thunderstorm rolled in, waking us with the tentative rain drops that gave us fair warning for the heavier stuff that was about to hit.

My friend scrambled for the camper door, leaving me with the only open space, the passenger seat. There was no way that a passenger seat would provide me with the required rest that I needed for an 80-mile bike ride the following morning.

I spotted a dark porch across the street with no signs of awake life from inside the house. More importantly, I saw a porch swing hanging from the ceiling. I immediately recalled several times I’d fallen asleep on the porch swing just off my parent’s master bedroom back home. I scooted over to the porch across from our camper and determined that I could easily wake up before anyone inside the house noticed me the next morning.

It worked. I tip-toed off the porch just as soon as I noticed a kitchen light come on, visible from the big window that separated the porch from the living room inside. I scurried back across the street to more friendly territory where members of my group were starting to roll out of the camper.

Shortly before taking off, I noticed that someone had stolen my bicycle seat. Let me rephrase that: I noticed that someone had stolen the bicycle seat of my friend’s bicycle, the nice man who entrusted its well-being and safety explicitly to me for this week.

One of the guys in the camper decided that he was too hungover to ride that day, so he let me use his seat, making my all black mountain bike look silly with his all white seat.

We rolled into the next town where another round of LSD was passed out. Under this state, I suddenly reminded myself that I probably wouldn’t be able to borrow the seat again. We had finally arrived at the last stop of the night and nobody wants to enter the last town via a sag wagon. The roads approaching would be tough too, as RAGBRAI snaked its way through the bluffs of the Mississippi river until you reached the end of the line at the river itself.

Under the influence of a mind-altering substance, I decided I would simply steal someone else’s bike seat when the rider’s campsite had calmed down for the evening.

I didn’t account for two things: 1.) That people usually stay up very late on their last night of RAGBRAI and 2.) That it is impossible to determine the correct distance of people’s voices while tripping on LSD.

I walked past a group of bikes lying unsecured next to a camper. I quickly got in front of the camper and-swear to god-crawled underneath the camper to get back to the bicycles. I thought I was being clandestine in my efforts, even though I could clearly hear people’s conversations to what sounded to be right next to me.

I crawled out from under my victim’s camper and made my way over to the cluster of bikes. I grabbed the seat off the first quick-release bike I could find and walked back the quarter-mile or so from my own campsite.

After a bit of self-congratulations for my efforts, I could see nobody was nearly impressed with my efforts as I was, mainly because it was getting close to daylight at this point and they were all trying to sleep.

I would have, if I'd stolen the right kind of seat.
I fell asleep in my sleeping bag that I positioned on a grassy hill and got in at least a few hours of sleep before heading out on the road again, the voices of imaginary people gently whispering me to sleep.

That morning, I learned two things: 1.) Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma is the best album ever made when you’re under the influence of LSD and 2.) There are these things called “stems” in which bicycle seats are attached to and these “stems” come in different sizes.

I learned these things because we listened to Ummagumma practically every night of RAGBRAI and because the bicycle seat that I had stolen while tripping my balls off just hours prior would not fit into the frame of the bicycle I was riding.

I admitted defeat and rode in the camper during the last day of RAGBRAI.

Karma really had its way with me as we rolled into a primitive little town on the Mississippi called Guttenberg. My friend had secured a small twin propeller airplane for us through a friend of his father. While getting my gear ready, I noticed that I had lost my wallet. To make matters worse, the owners of the camper were in a rush to leave, so I gave them my address in case they found it while cleaning it out when they got home.

Our plane landed in Guttenberg’s airport, a small airfield with a grass runway that looked like there was no distance between start to finish. And at the finish was an old barn, that still looked sturdy enough that it could do some damage to a twin-propeller airplane with four occupants.

As the plane rose, I drifted off to sleep, dreaming that this would be my last RAGBRAI adventure ever.

Quick epilogue: I did get my wallet back when one of the camper dudes mailed it to the address I’d left with him.

I also got arrested the first day I got back home, evidently the result of some investigation on me while I was away on my bike trip. It was the first time I ever used the phrase “I’d like to speak to my lawyer” and, let me tell you, it’s something that I’d recommend to any of those yackers you see on Cops.

What I was arrested for is anther story, as this one has gone on for too long. I’ve never been on RAGBRAI since that time, but the funny thing is that I haven’t missed it, at least not until our city hosted the event this year and more and more people began talking about the impact to the city.

Cedar Rapids spent $250,000 on getting Counting Crows to come here, a concert that featured most riders staying away entirely, presumably because half of RAGBRAI’s participants didn’t know who Counting Crows were and the other half did, but they weren’t willing to fork over the $25 they were asking for as ticket prices.

It would have been $30 for a civilian like me.

No only that, but they put the concert a ways away from the campgrounds, leaving people with not much incentive to hop on their bikes after an already long day, just to pedal to our downtown district to hear “Round Here” or “Mr. Jones.”

Pink Floyd's got a can ride it if you'd like.
The riders complained that Cedar Rapids seemed to think that the riders were nothing but open pocketbooks, to which I’d suggest, “Absolutely!”

You see, we haven’t got too many visitors here since 2008 because of the floods, so any market that we can corner, we’ll try to get as much money from them as possible. They’re refurbishing our concrete arena for more Slipknot and Stone Sour shows and the ornate Paramount Theater that was covered in river water is not scheduled to reopen until November, when none other than Harry Connick Jr. is slated to appear for the grand re-opening festivities. Don’t laugh, I’ve heard numerous women at work who’ve already declared that they’ll be the first in line to get tickets.

I don’t question my town’s motivation for trying to swindle a buck or two, and I’d say it’s entirely up to the riders themselves if they want to pay for such offerings. I probably wouldn’t have spent $25 bucks on a ticket for a rock show either, choosing instead to spend my money on cheap domestic beer, weed and LSD.

And with those kinds of elements, the only other entertainment you need is a well-worn cassette copy of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma.

No comments: