Iowa City, IA (Part 2)

Slip-n-slide RAGBRAI. Unless you’re an Iowan or an avid bike rider, you might not know what those letters mean. But you should. The (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa is an institution in the state I’ve now been in for almost three weeks. Until recently all I knew about it was that it’s an annual bike ride across the state of Iowa that starts at the Missouri River and ends at the Mississippi. I knew it was taking place around the same time I would be in Iowa, but because it runs in the opposite direction I’m traveling, I had no intention of getting involved. As soon as I got into Iowa I had a hard time talking to people without the conversation eventually turning to RAGBRAI. It soon became clear that it was an important part of Iowa culture. I learned that the route this year was north of my projected path, and would start just after I left Iowa, or so I thought. After my hundredth RAGBRAI conversation I decided it would probably be worth it to go out of my way and meet up for a night. I’d needed to slow down a bit to do this, but I wasn’t in a rush. After my thousandth RAGBRAI conversation, I decided it would probably be worth it to ride with RAGBRAI for a day or two, even though I would be backtracking through the midwest, an area which I had dreaded pedaling through a couple of weeks prior. I’ll try to explain the events leading up to my decision to ride 450 miles in the “wrong direction” across Iowa.

I had rolled into town expecting to only stay a night in Iowa City. Cristy and I decided it would be a good place for her to end her ride with me, so we spent the day seeing the town and packing up her bike so that she could take it on the bus home. I saw her to the bus station and sat in the pedestrianized area (the “Ped Mall”) to read a book and people-watch. When the sun went down I had intended to return to the spot I camped in the night before, after listening to and watching a drum circle that had formed. While I was talking to some people in town for a photojournalism camp, a man walked up to me, extended his hand for a shake, and said “Are you Jesse Steiner?” I would have denied, but I was feeling particularly honest that night. “I was just on your website, and I think what you’re doing is pretty cool. Do you have a place to stay tonight?” he asked. “Well, not with a roof over it.” I responded. “I’ve got an office nearby with a couch. I’ll give you the keys and you can stay as long as you’d like.” I didn’t know what to say. I’ve been taken very good care of by incredibly generous people since the start of my trip, but for someone to offer the keys to their office within moments of meeting me just left me astounded. His name was Doug, he turned out to be a really cool guy, and I took him up on his offer. I slept on Doug’s couch that night and woke up before his assistant, Veena, came in. We’ll come back to her in a minute. I had some breakfast with Doug and his wife Amy, who were both great company, and then went to their house for a much-needed shower.

I went back to the ped mall for more reading and people-watching, although didn’t end up getting much reading done. I was soon approached by Lee, a food vendor on the ped mall I had met briefly my first night there. Lee took a particular interest in what I was doing, and wanted to let the newspapers and TV news stations know. I’ve never been really interested in attracting media attention, so I told him not to bother. Shortly after, a cute girl named Emmy sat on the bench next to me and told me she had seen my website, so we chatted for a bit about my little adventure. The onversation inevitably turned to RAGBRAI, and she said that her friend was driving to the start in Sioux City and could probably give my bike and I a ride if I wanted. I hadn’t before considered the idea of hitching a ride to the start, but I immediately liked it. I told her I would think about it and get back to her. Lee came back and we chatted some more and I told him I was thinking about doing the whole RAGBRAI. His face instantly lit up as he thought this would make my story even more appealing to the media outlets in Iowa. The idea that I spontaneously decided to ride RAGBRAI, which travels 442 miles in the opposite direction of my travels, after being overwhelmed by Iowa hospitality was a good story. He was so adamant about talking to the newspapers that I told him to go ahead and give them the story. I didn’t actually think anyone would be interested. As it turns out, I was quite wrong. I was soon contacted by the Daily Iowan, a newspaper in Iowa City, KWWL, a news station out of Waterloo, and the Des Moines Register, the newspaper which organizes RAGBRAI. I soon started calling Lee my publicist, since he was quite good in that position. I figured if people were really interested in what I’m doing, and Lee was that interested in letting them know, I should let him. It also meant I was now locked into riding the entire RAGBRAI route, and I was okay with that.

I ran into a guy named Rob that afternoon who volunteered at the local community bike project, the Bike Library. He showed me the place, and I immediately knew that I wanted to volunteer there while I was in town. I’d received so much from the generous people I’ve met thus far and felt like I wasn’t giving back nearly enough. Volunteering for a bit helped my conscience and my karma debt. I had dinner that night with Nina and Joe, yet another generous and super-friendly couple whom I had met on the ped mall. After a delicious homecooked meal I met up with Lee, Emmy, and her friend Kate at a pub down the street for trivia night. The following day I did more reading and people-watching, knowing it would really be a day of conversations with strangers who are walking by. That’s truly my favorite pastime. I headed to the bike library to volunteer, where I met Brad, James, and a bunch of other awesome bike guys. I helped sort scrap bike parts into piles of aluminum or steel for recycling. While there, I met Steve and Cody, owners of a local bike shop called 30th Century Bikes, who stopped in to drop of a donated bike. They invited me to join them for drinks later. When I stopped at the bar to take them up on their offer, they were joined by John and Joe. RAGBRAI came up in conversation immediately, and I learned that John and Joe and a bunch of their friends were driving a bus up to Sioux City for the start of RAGBRAI. They told me they had room for me and my enormous bike, and invited me to come along. I agreed, and so was officially riding RAGBRAI. Lee and Emmy also joined the party, and after Steve, Cody, John, and Joe had left we all watched my story on the KWWL evening news. The next few days were mostly a giant series of talking to strangers, making friends, and reading on the ped mall.

I also learned that Veena, Doug’s assistant, runs the pedicab operation in Iowa City with her brother Vik. I had been a pedicab driver in San Jose when I lived there a few years ago, and it was the best side job you could ever ask for. It’s really the perfect way to meet people and make a couple bucks. I was interested more in the former than the latter, although a couple bucks never hurts. Vik and Veena liked the idea, and so I spet Friday night pedaling people around Iowa City and making conversation. One passenger in particular left a lasting impression. Nate was a man who was going through hard times, and currently lived on the streets in Iowa City. When I offered him a ride I knew I would refuse any attempt he made to remunerate me for giving him a lift, because I knew he needed it more than I did. While in the cab we chatted for a bit about my trip, and the conversation eventually landed on where I sleep at night. I told him the truth, that I have been very fortunate so far to be offered a place to sleep by many strangers, but that when there are no friends or friendly strangers I just find an out-of-the-way place to sleep where hopefully nobody will bother me. I saw an immediate change in his demeanor as he said in a softer voice, “So you sleep out here on the streets too?” I replied, unashamed, “Absolutely.” I could tell a barrier between us had been broken down, and that Nate now saw me being a lot more like himself than he had initially thought. And he saw that I was following my dream and loving life. He realized he could do the same. He kept saying how inspired he was now to do the things he wants to do, and when our pedicab trip finally came to an end, I gave him a hug while his eyes were a bit red and watery. Seeing the effect I had on this perfectly sober and coherent homeless man just by offering him a ride and telling my story was one of the points on this trip with the most lasting impact. When he walked away I welled up a little bit too. I’m doing this trip for myself, just to have a good time. I had never thought of it as “inspiring.” But now I realize for some people it is. And I like it. From now on when people ask me if I’m doing this trip for anything other than fun, I’m going to tell them I’m trying to inspire people to live their dreams. You want me to have a “cause?” There it is.

When Saturday came along, I met Joe and John at the bus they were driving. I met the thirteen other strangers just before we all crammed onto the 1970’s-era school bus, which had been converted into a band’s tour bus a few years ago. My RAGBRAI experience was kicked off in this bus, which doesn’t go over 50 mph, with the 6-hour drive to Sioux City. For obvious reasons, the entire ride I had The Who’s “Magic Bus” stuck in my head. By the time we arrived, the fifteen strangers were now fifteen friends. I can’t tell many stories that happened over the course of the next several days, for fear of disgracing my mother and tarnishing the family name. Let us just say that for the most part my RAGBRAI experience involved a lot of biking and cheap beer. It felt a bit like college again. But it was not all roving debauchery, as most of my time was spent meeting new people, all of which were interesting and like-minded. That’s one of the amazing things about RAGBRAI. It’s not just a collection of 20,000+ people on bikes, it’s a collection of 20,000+ like-minded people. Having worked in bars for years, I’m used to seeing late night arguments and fights whenever there is alcohol involved. I can say that nearly every night of RAGBRAI I saw an enormous crowd at varying levels of intoxication, but yet never once witnessed hostility. I’m sure it happened somewhere, but the fact that it wasn’t happening everywhere was amazing to me.

The crew from the bus called themselves “The Hedonistas,” a group which originated the previous year as a RAGBRAI team. They all had matching neon green jerseys, shorts, and hats, and donated a hat to me to declare me part of the team. I rode with them quite a bit, but also went my own way sometimes and was adopted by other teams. One of these teams didn’t call themselves a “team,” but were a bunch of friends from Iowa State University. Some of the more college-like experiences happened while I was riding with these guys, inluding a spectator sport involving a whiffle-ball bat filled with beer. It was also while riding with them that I learned I could take off my shorts and pack them away while riding a bike. I’ll say I am pretty proud of that one. Throughout the week I was also adopted at some point by “Team Solid,” who declared that I was a “solid guy.” The last day I also road with “Team DLO,” who pride themselves on being “Da Last Ones,” and whose motto is “When you ride with us, you become one of us.”

I maintained personal hygeine mainly by jumping into the water at Clear Lake and Storm Lake, but also got a shower when I stayed with the Hankins family in Cedar Falls. Greg had seen me on the news the week before and got in touch with me to offer me a place to stay when RAGBRAI passed through nearby Waterloo. I rolled into Waterloo and met up with my friend Rochelle, whom I know from RIT, and it was nice to see a familiar face. I hadn’t seen any old friends since I left Chicago, which at this point felt like ages ago. After a decent Beatles cover band finished their set in Waterloo I was picked up by Jordan and Lauren and taken to the Hankins residence, where I cleaned up and was treated to a delicious slice of pie, a comfortable bed, and a full breakfast. Jordan gave me a ride back to Waterloo the next morning so I could jump on the RAGBRAI route, but not before giving me a tour of the funeral home where he worked. It may sound like an odd thing to get an impromptu tour of, but it was something I had never seen before, and on the grounds of seeing new things I graciously took him up on the offer.

I also met some other long-haul tourers along the way, including Ward and Jacky from who just finished a three-year bike tour of the world. They were traveling with Jon who had recently ridden from Alaska to Central America. A few days before I ran into Tom, a guy who had ridden from Cancun to Argentina in 2008. All of these people said the same thing: when traveling by bike, you will generally be safe in Latin America as long as you keep your head on you shoulders, are aware of your surroundings, and are generally just not an idiot. I can’t speak from my own experience, but for those of you who are worried for me once I leave the USA, just know that you shouldn’t really be any more worried for me then than you are now. There was also a pair of guys who were riding from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, and a trio who started riding in Seattle and were looking to circumnavigate the USA. Unfortunately, my capacity to remember names had reached its limit early on into RAGBRAI, and there are many, many people I met along the way whose name I failed to store. I also ran into Ben and Frita shortly before Manchester. I had raced with Ben both years I raced for RIT, and we shared many of the same friends, although we had never previously met. He’s the only ECCC’er I’ve run into since Frances in Greenfield.

Another touching story for me involved Matt, a guy I met on the second-to-last day of RAGBRAI and rode with on the last. I learned that Matt was carrying the ashes of his good friend Vern, whose last wish was to have half of his ashes spread in the Missouri River at the start of RAGBRAI and the other half in the Mississippi at the end of the ride. RAGBRAI was a very important thing to Vern and Matt, and they had ridden it together more than a dozen times. I got to witness Vern taking his last dip into the Mississippi, completing his earthly journey. Vern had died of brain cancer in March, at the age of 50. From everything I’d heard about him, he sounds like the kind of guy I’d get along with really well. It’s one more reminder that enjoying life isn’t something you should put off until retirement. You’ve got to do it every day. Live your dreams when you can. Rest in peace, Vern.

I’m back in Iowa City now, and just finished one of my top three espressos of the trip. Drew, a Hedonista who also pedicabbed with me, made it for me at the Java House. It’s certainly on-par with the dark and delicious cups from Ipsento and Greenfield Coffee. I should also mention I was fueled along RAGBRAI by Ben (different from racing Ben), whose espresso cart is usually parked outside of 30th Century Bicycles but moved along the RAGBRAI route as it progressed. Yesterday Emmy and I went kayaking along with her sister Abby and maybe-someday-brother-in-law Matt. After a barbeque in the park with the Hedonistas, I slept inside the magic bus. Today is my last RAGBRAI recovery day, as I’m going to head west tomorrow. Next major stop is Omaha, Nebraska, where I’ll hop a flight for the weekend so I can go to my friend Lindsay’s wedding. This beard that I’ve been growing out of laziness is starting to get out of control, so maybe I’ll shave it. Or maybe not. Whatever I feel like.

And on a parting note, here are some links to some of the publicity I’ve received while here in Iowa. My conversations with strangers have been facilitated by the fact that my story has apparently been published in newspapers in Iowa City, Des Moines, Waterloo, Sioux City, Dubuque, and possibly more. Here are the ones I’ve got links to.

The Des Moines Register
The Daily Iowan
RIT’s Alumni News

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  1. Greg Hankins
    Posted August 2, 2010 at 9:45 PM | Permalink

    An AWESOME post on RAGBRAI. You have discovered the “real Iowa” – which is fueled by awesome people and events. Take care, my friend! And safe travels!

  2. Posted August 3, 2010 at 11:50 AM | Permalink

    Hey Jesse,

    If you make it to the Bay Area, hit me up. Would love to have you crash at our pad to replenish and recharge. We’re gone from Sep 19-Oct.13 and back for a few before leaving again.

    Safe travels through the West!

  3. chad
    Posted August 3, 2010 at 1:04 PM | Permalink

    If you need a place to crash and shower in Des Moines get ahold of me by e-mail. I’m friends with Cody and Steve from 30 cent bike.

  4. PJ
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 12:18 AM | Permalink

    Beard twin! Eloquent recount of RAGBRAI. I seriously miss waking up and riding bikes all day. With a sprinkling of louisville chugger and Lynchburg lemonades throughout the ride, of course. If you cruise by Ames you always have a place to stay.

  5. Brian Renzenbrink
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 1:38 PM | Permalink

    I’m getting more and more envious with every post. Keep up the adventure and definitely keep the beard!

  6. Lauren Hankins
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 10:33 AM | Permalink

    Hey Jesse! It was so awesome meeting you, you’re story truly is inspirational. I wish we would’ve had more time to hear some of your crazy, not-for-our-mother’s-ears stories! I hope in the future we can meet up… maybe Jordan and I can do RAGBRAI with you one year! :)

  7. Lauren Hankins
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 10:34 AM | Permalink

    P.S. I’m really glad for you that you decided to fly out of Omaha… I was a LITTLE worried about the time frame of getting to Denver!

  8. Gabbie
    Posted August 15, 2010 at 1:47 PM | Permalink

    I saw your picture on one of my friend’s facebook page and I just had to check out your website.
    Good luck on your trip and I will continue to read your blog.

    I think it is like super cool that you are doing this :)