Woke the next morning about three hours after most of the masses had left as is the Hedonista style, (that's our team name, given to us by de facto leader D. Earl) and rolled through downtown Council Bluffs. The morning was warm, but not oppressively so, and the scene was relatively calm. Everyone seems to sense the antics that will arise naturally throughout the week, and no one is eager to force the issue on the first day of riding. Need to get your legs under you first.
That ride wasn't especially memorable. Corn and soy beans, a hill or two I'm sure, but truthfully I don't remember much but moving along ahead of the group with Joe, and one instance where we went neck and neck with a train that paralleled the route. What's unique about RAGBRAI is that the organizers shut down the highways, leaving them open only to cyclists. The occasional stray car finds it's way into the crowd, but for the most part the only traffic is of the two-wheeled variety (barring the occasional mustachioed man on a unicycle).
I took my turn driving the van on the second half the day because someone has to get it and the gear to the next town. Once there I found us a spot on the lawn strip besides a small park already congested with sunburned middle-agers. A few beers, a new front tire, and half a page of Kundera later and I was napping in the shade of the trailer.
Most of the crew shows up just as the the last of my shade was shifting away from me as the sun swung around behind the trailer. We had a chat, went our separate ways for dinner, and reconvened at a bar called The Hitching Post, where I later found out Megan saw Lance Armstrong earlier in the day. After a few rounds of Budweiser and Jim Beam we spun quietly down the dark streets to the campsite.
Witching hour. Moon waxing itself to full tomorrow and plenty bright enough tonight. D. Earl and I take the oppurtunty to ride and set out of town past the fairgrounds and into the Iowa country night. The air is cool and the lightning bugs flash in the ditches along the highway which eventually gives way to gravel and rolling hills. We stop after a few miles to share a beer and sit beside a tree standing sentinel among the crops, the moon bright enough that the tree throws its shadow on the road. We ride on past a farmhouse where two angry and supernaturally quick dogs burst from the front porch and chase us down in a flurry of stubby legs and threatening barks. One gets ahead of me and my front wheel panics in the loose gravel for a split second and it seems impossible that I won't crash into the crazed mutt until it peels away at the last minute, content to yawp at us from a distance. Flying away we joke about how the next house better not have any dogs bigger than those, and sure enough a few miles down the road another farm house rolls by accompanied by the deep bellow of some beast lost in the shadows, but he must've been tied up or too old to give chase. We take a few more breaks to polish off the last of the beers we've brought and ride back into a camp an hour or two before the majority of bikers will be packing up their tents.
Monday is the long day. There is the option of doing an extra loop on the route to complete a century (a hundred mile ride), but the eighty-four miles from Harlan to Perry proves to be plenty of highway for one day. It starts out smooth, most of us are feeling comfortable with our legs and with that we start to drink. Replacing water bottles with open tall boys in coozies in our cages and shot-gunning the occasional can of warm beer passed out by unfamiliar faces looking to lighten their load.
By the time we reach the midway town we're feeling the miles. There's still about forty to cover and it's late in the afternoon. Only four of us decide to push on. Even on burnt-out legs, this is why we're here, and you just never know what might happen out there on the bike. We run into Caitlin, a friend from Iowa City who's riding with a group that carries everything they'll need for the week on their bikes. That includes tents, bike tools, clothes, spare parts, and toothbrushes. A gritty and physically exhausting endeavor I'm sure. Watching them labor up long hills on bikes laden with gear while I jaunt along on a dainty road bike burdened only by a beer or two, I really do respect the way they drag themselves up and over everything that comes along.
We join forces with these noble burrows and take a short detour through Springbrook State Park to lounge out by a small lake. On the way there, I get a little ahead of the group, and end up on the other side of the lake from where they've spread out. I then get a little ahead of myself, thinking that my D+ swimming skills will allow me the shortcut of going straight across lake. It was close. I really did almost make it. But in the end I panicked and some twenty feet from the shore my breath and worn down legs failed me. I gasped and nearly gurgled my situation to Caitlin who added bravery to her growing list of attributes by allowing me her shoulder so as not to drown. Thanks Caitlin.
Leaving the lake, we meet up with the Raccoon River Valley Trail, an out of use railbed converted to bike path, outside the town of Yale where it runs behind the weathered old grain elevators. It was the most scenic stretch of the week, though in fairness it was aided by a massive storm cell that was churning out otherworldly formations of ghosts and clouds. The path also maintained a pleasant 3% or less grade as was required by the trains when the railbeds were built. These rails to trails projects make for easy cruising and often times long gradual downhills were you can soar along for miles with hardly a spin of the pedals.
We stop for a beer and long look at the sky. The sun has started to drift behind the lowest layer of huge cumulo cotton and an ominous black hand of shadow is stretching out towards us against the back drop of a higher sheet of thin moisture. Drew and I let the group ride on and watch the hand creep further and further over our heads, expanding exponentially as the sun makes its turn down the far side of the earth. As nightfall hits the first drops start to break on the concrete and we make it to an old train depot just as the heavens open in gushes of water and crackling light. Two hours later the storm passes, and the last leg into Perry is a storm of incandescent whips snapping all along our southern horizon echoed gently beneath by dusky fields of fireflies calming blinking out the rhythm of their lives. We arrive dry and spiritually sated to eat a meal of chips and plastic-wrapped sandwiches in the parking lot of a gas station before setting up our tents in the yard of someone long asleep and put ourselves down until tomorrow.
The rest of week rolled out in the customary blur of warm and cold beer, flat tires and loose spokes, new friends and new enemies, but I'll wrap myself up here as I've already overextended your attention and covered only the first few days. I don't know the exact science behind the RAGBRAI elation and the inescapable hangover that follows. Whether it's the dopamines and vitamin D or the week away from work coupled with an elevated BAC. Whatever it is, it leaves you a little hollow inside, desperate to maintain the person that you were out there. As D. Earl said, "One week a year, I'm at my best."
With love to my Hedonista's.