Posted by: trevormeers | July 30, 2011

Day One: Methodists of the Amazon

Daily dispatches from a week-long bicycle trek across Iowa.*

As I wiggled my tent stakes into the hard sod of left field on the Glenwood ball diamond, I started longing for a place with cooler air and a clearer atmosphere. Someplace like the Amazon Basin in summer. Despite roasting beneath a sky that melted every cloud like meringue on a car hood, I rushed to get the rain fly onto my tent. In the sauna of western Iowa, my overloaded pores threatened to soak my tent’s interior faster than any sudden storm.

I hadn’t pedaled one yard of the famous ride across Iowa called RAGBRAI, and I was already crying uncle to two of the tour’s notorious Four Horsemen: Heat, Humidity, Headwind and Hills. With tents in place, all 10,000 or so riders took to standing around in small groups, watching sweat slide down faces, arms and legs. “Just one whiff of wind,” one guy said while dabbing his face with a towel. “That would make a difference.”

But if complaining changed the weather, corn farmers would all get Seattle rains and San Diego winters. So I tried to distract myself by carefully memorizing my tent’s location. I’d made the mistake of bringing along a Kelty tent that appeared to be the IPad of tents for the last couple of years. Looking out on campgrounds all over town, you saw these bivouacs of the Spandex army poised to invade Fortress Iowa.

Fortunately, my tent differed slightly from those endless mounds—and was strategically placed directly next to the shade tent. Confident that I’d find my way home, I pitied the fools who forgot the number of their standard-issue charter tents and started walking to the Glenwood town square to find supper.

Food is far more than fuel on RAGBRAI. It’s a cultural exchange. People literally come from around the world (two days before the start, someone posted on RAGBRAI’s Facebook page that they were leaving Rotterdam, bound for Iowa) to experience small-town America, which is largely to say small-town American cuisine. That means steak sandwiches, pork loins and sweet corn by the truckload. Being a guy, I’m almost as fascinated by food technology as food itself, so I was particularly intrigued by this device in Glenwood that turns cooking corn-on-the-cob into a mechanized wonder:

The upstanding young man in the photo (surely active in the FFA), places soaked ears of sweet corn onto a metal shelf, then turns the crank to bring up another shelf. When the shelves are all loaded, he starts a small motor that sends the corn riding around inside the roaster like lovers on the county fair Ferris wheel.

But the soul food closest to RAGBRAI’s soul is pie. Over the ride’s seven days, nice old ladies across the state bake like the very future of the Methodist/Lutheran/Catholic/Episcopal church depends on them. Which, in many cases, could be true. Selling pie at $3 a slice, 8 slices to the pie, the church ladies of Iowa raise enough cash in the few hours RAGBRAI passes through their towns to reshingle roofs, reside parsonages and retool tired organs. Wandering behind the main stage on Glenwood’s town square, on which a band called Grand Theft Girlfriend was playing, I spotted these signs and followed their trail:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The church ladies had me at hello, but since I was currently sweating through my second shirt of the afternoon, they sealed the deal with this placard:

As I walked down the stairs and ducked through the basement door, Glenwood’s storm sirens went off, and organizers walked the streets advising us all to take shelter where we could because a doozy of a blow was moving in from Nebraska. The Methodist ladies were waiting to offer me shelter in their cement block walls and table full of pie guarded by someone’s stern-looking husband.

I grabbed a slice of blueberry and found a seat next to the fireplace decorated with a wreath made of plastic flowers and Easter eggs. The air conditioning quickly sunk into my soaked shirt, and I decided to take the ladies up on their offer of free coffee, even if the heat index was in the triple digits outside. The street grew dark beyond the windows as I cleaned all the blueberry sauce from my plate and listened to the chatter of the locals across from me.

“This isn’t soupy like my sister’s,” an older gentleman said to his friend.

A few minutes later, his wife reflected on pie and the spiritual side of humanity. “We were in a Bible study last summer, but we had to suspend it for a few weeks because nobody would come when it conflicted with Pie In The Park.”

The storm blew through, cooling Glenwood down to a level that didn’t leave me sweating at the mere thought of walking back to the campground. Before I settled into a lawn chair with my fellow charter customers for the evening, I grabbed my bike for the traditional dipping of the rear tire in the Missouri’s waters. With this year’s flooding, the authorities had closed all access to the river. The brochure handed to every RAGBRAI rider upon entering town made clear that touching the river’s levees would earn a fine of $500. Entering the water itself would set you back a cool $40,000 and earn the wrath of the Coast Guard, who apparently has a cutter berthed at Omaha. So I opted for dipping my tire in a kiddie pool supposedly filled with Missouri River water. It was suitably murky, but when I gave $2 to the trail association sponsoring the “dip site,” I felt a bit like I’d paid to look into one of those rooms where George Washington may have once slept.

Back at the shade tent, a guy in a do rag and Buddy Holly glasses passed around a Chinese lantern, telling us to write our “hopes and wishes for RAGBRAI” onto it, and he’d light it and send it aloft at dusk. Holding the Sharpie, I read others’ notes:

“Eat pie. Have fun!”

“Get a suntan!”

“No crashes. No flats. No hills.”

I wrote “Meet the greatest Methodist pie lady of them all,” handed the lantern to the next rider and waited for my quest to rise into the heavy air.

* For the Iowans among you thinking, “Hey, wasn’t RAGBRAI last week?” Yes, but when a small city rolls across a rural state, cellular web access gets dicey. So while the posts were written the day of the events, they’re going up exactly one week later.

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