This weeklong bike ride is a phantasmagoria, but it’s also a communion.
The most important stops on the bicycle ride RAGBRAI? Time spent in the living rooms of Iowans who open their homes to strangers.
Barely an hour after meeting Carol Kramer, I sat in her living room in Newton, Iowa, as she spoke softly not only to me but to an entire circle of strangers. We were a rapt audience as the octogenarian told the story of when she was a little girl of 10 on her Ojibway Tribe’s White Earth Reservation in northwest Minnesota. Kramer’s grandmother, on her deathbed, leaned in close and said something that basically foretold the rest of her granddaughter’s life.
This wasn’t the standard small talk. But it’s common currency on a bike ride called RAGBRAI, or the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
For the uninitiated, RAGBRAI is a seven-day statewide trek always held the last full week of July. This world’s largest, oldest, and longest bike touring event often gets lauded (or pilloried) as a rural rolling bacchanalia. Or it’s promoted as a rare injection of precious tourism dollars for small towns huddled on the prairie whose high school graduates keep fleeing to cities.
But to my mind this ride more than anything is an ideal secular communion.
In recent years it also has felt like a rejuvenating escape to a nonpartisan oasis at a time when political polarization has crept into nearly every corner of our lives. It’s too damn easy for us to argue through our phones, or to be micro-targeted with political digital ads and misinformation.
RAGBRAI predates the birth of Mark Zuckerberg, let alone the rise of social media. Since its accidental founding in 1973 it has been the reason that Iowa rates as one of two summertime centers of the bicycling universe. The wiry racers with iron legs flock to the Tour de France. Meanwhile, the paunchy pie-eating amateurs amass in a gaggle of 10,000 or so to lope along for more than 400 miles from the Missouri River to the Mississippi, following a different route annually.
Riders bunk overnight in designated towns. Thousands of them opt to zip themselves inside stifling tents, or climb aboard a jalopy school bus converted into a garish party wagon emblazoned with highbrow branding such as “Team Butt Ice.”
But in my decade of RAGBRAI (initially as a Register columnist who simultaneously pedaled and reported) I’ve always relied on the hospitality of Iowans who graciously open their air-conditioned homes to the sweaty horde. Most of the week’s highlights unfold off the bike — many of them in Iowans’ living rooms and kitchens where the end-of-day mix of exhaustion, euphoria, and canned beer tends to encourage mutual vulnerability and candor.
It was RAGBRAI 2018 that swept me into the home of Kramer and her husband, Fritz. The two met when Fritz, now a retired Episcopal priest, was a young church-school teacher working at White Earth. He first spotted Kramer dressed in full tribal regalia while dancing in a village pow-wow.
I entered the Kramer home as a proud member of the hybrid bike troupe of Team Groucho (as in Marx), captained by Bill Danforth from Shenandoah in southwest Iowa, and Team No Pie Refused (as in National Public Radio), a merry band of NPR journalists headquartered in Washington, D.C., and led by Scott Horsley. The team stages a heartfelt nightly ceremony: Riders circle ’round to present token gifts that represent the character or interests of each rider. It helps the hosts get to know everybody on the team. It’s part reverent storytelling circle, part stand-up comedy routine.
Goofy camaraderie was baked into RAGBRAI from the beginning, the tone set by the open invitation from Des Moines Register journalists and self-described “wannabe hippies” John Karras and Donald Kaul. The co-founders embarked from Sioux City on their inaugural jaunt, a convenient way to convince their editors to support their biking habit, with only the occasional pay phone to keep them tethered to the newsroom.
Writing about the second ride in 1974, Kaul — keep in mind, the more acerbic Lennon to Karras’ McCartney — sounded almost Utopian: “The thing about the bike trip that’s the same this year is the spirit,” Kaul wrote. “It’s beautiful. The people along the way are wonderful to the bikers, and the bikers are wonderful to each other.”
“… a phantasmagoria of color and motion; a parade-on-wheels tribute to the American spirit …”
A few thousand more RAGBRAI miles down the road, a 1982 article in The Iowan magazine summed up RAGBRAI as “a test of individual endurance; an easy exercise in comradeship; a phantasmagoria of color and motion; a parade-on-wheels tribute to the American spirit; and, above all, a show of hospitality and friendship among the participants — all 6,000 of them — and the people of Iowa who act as their hosts along the route.”
This phantasmagoria evolved into the modern spectacle that nobody in 1973 could’ve imagined, least of all Karras and Kaul. But it always has retained that essential spirit as it outlives its founding generation.
I felt the spirit two years ago in Newton with Kramer (called Wabaskunageensch, or “Little Unripe Blueberry” by her fellow Ojibway), who served us wild rice still harvested by her indigenous relatives.
What Kramer’s grandmother said on her deathbed? She told her granddaughter that the little girl would grow up to take care of a lot of children. The 10-year-old Kramer’s first thought was her own eventual motherhood. She and Fritz did raise two daughters.
But the prophecy truly took shape in the form of Kramer’s career for more than 30 years as a beloved elementary schoolteacher — a caretaker of thousands of children. Our bike team had booked the accommodations thanks to an obscure connection through one of Kramer’s former students.
It was as if suddenly I could see a winding path illuminated — not the bike route we followed that week, but one infinitely more complicated that stretched from the grandmother’s dying words to our arrival 70 years later on Kramer’s doorstep.
Maybe you heard that this has been a wild off-season in the annals of RAGBRAI. Its longtime marketing staff abruptly resigned last fall and immediately launched Iowa’s Ride, initially scheduled the very same week. To do this family split justice and untangle all the context would require me to write several hundred more words and stain my keyboard with tears.
Suffice it to say that I assumed bicycling to be the last and safest cultural common ground remaining. I hope that holds true in 2020.
The arch drama may have subsided. Iowa’s Ride moved up a week on the calendar and has been offered as more of a quaint throwback, with a cap of 5,000 riders keeping primarily to smaller towns. And it flip-flopped its route, running from east to west.
This makes it possible for rabid bicyclists with ample vacation days and stamina to spend two weeks pedaling back and forth across the state. Mass bicycling on Iowa’s byways becomes a two-part summer centerpiece that runs longer than the State Fair.
As long as the original RAGBRAI endures and Iowa towns and officials can support a second statewide ride, maybe this spreads the spirit of ’73 through even more living rooms.
Maybe that sounds naive and Utopian.
Sorry, it’s the RAGBRAI in me talking.
Carol and Fritz Kramer pose with their Team Groucho glasses during RAGBRAI 2018.